Tracing the Century: arbitrary and puzzling, but with gems

Tracing the Century: arbitrary and puzzling, but with gems
Henry Moore, Pink and Green Sleepers, 1941
Henry Moore, Pink and Green Sleepers, 1941

Just before it closed, I went along to see Tracing the Century: Drawing as a Catalyst for Change at Tate Liverpool, an exhibition which aims to highlight the fundamental role of drawing as a vehicle for change in modern and contemporary artFor the average art-lover it’s a deeply puzzling assembly, not only of sketches and drawings but also paintings, sculpture and film; moreover, the curators have jarringly juxtaposed radically different artists from different perspectives and periods.

So we find Cezanne sharing a wall with Klee and Richard Hamilton.  Henry Moore’s brilliant London blitz drawings are paired for some reason that escapes me with contemporary artist Matthew Monahan, while a Moore sculpture shares a space with works by Francis Bacon, Jacob Beuys and Andy Warhol.  The poster advertising the exhibition features anatomical drawings by William Orpen that were really designed as teaching aids for art students, while the show gets its name from Jasper Johns’ ‘Tracing’, part of a series in which Johns literally traced art works by Cezanne and others  leading one art critic to write that, ‘any art student ought to know that a tracing of a painting isn’t a response or an interpretation’.

The exhibition got a fairly savage review in the Independent:
There seems to be a vogue among curators at the various Tates for trying to force connections between palpably unconnected works or genres. Maybe it’s a leftover from the whole Dream/Future/Multistorey Car Park thing at the pre-new-hang Tate Modern.  Anyway, it’s time to stop.  Like a provincial restaurant, Tracing the Century‘s menu talks the talk but doesn’t dish up the goods. It starts from the unsurprising premise that drawing was a catalyst for change in the art of the past 100 years, which is certainly true, although it was also true for the century before that and pretty well every century since the caves at Lascaux. […] Irritatingly, Tracing the Century manages to be both arbitrary and over-organised at the same time – rambling vaguely from room to room while stopping to suggest implausible connections between unlike artists.
However, this is a big show, bringing together around a hundred artworks from the Tate collection, so you’d expect there to be some good stuff.  I quickly decided to just focus on the works that spoke to me – and there were many – and forget about trying to grapple with the curators’ argument.
Paul Cézanne, Montagne Sainte-Victoire,1905-6
Paul Cézanne, Montagne Sainte-Victoire, 1905-6

One of the first treasures I encountered was this watercolour sketch by Cezanne of Montagne Sainte-Victoire, his favourite subject from the late 1880s until his death. Cezanne returned, day after day to sketch it from different viewpoints and in changing light conditions and this watercolour was painted from the hillside above his studio at Les Lauves just outside Aix-en-Provence. The Tate caption explains its significance:

In his landscapes, he abandoned traditional fixed-point perspective in an attempt to capture the natural movement of the eye as it roams across the vista. The viewer is led across the surface of his image through passages of carefully constructed brush-marks and subtle tones.  Emile Bernard visited Cézanne in 1904 and noted his unique approach to sketching in watercolours: ‘His method was strange, entirely different from the usual practices and of an extreme complexity. He began with the shadows and with a touch, which he covered with a second more extensive touch, then with a third, until all these tints, forming a mesh, both coloured and modelled the object.’

Paul Gauguin, Tahitians, 1891
Paul Gauguin, Tahitians, 1891

Paul Gauguin’s Tahitians is hard to date exactly owing to its unfinished state, but most probably it was made about 1891 during Gauguin’s first stay in Tahiti. In its unfinished state, though, it reveals a great deal about Gauguin’s working methods.   He began his work in Tahiti by making a number of studies in order to come to terms with his new subject-matter. Here he is sketching out his ideas, beginning with a crayon and charcoal drawing on paper, and adding in detail on the left in oil.  On 11 March 1892 Gauguin wrote to Daniel de Monfreid: ‘I work more and more but so far only studies or rather documents … If they aren’t of use to me later they will be useful to others.’

Woman Seated in the Underground 1941
Henry Moore, Woman Seated in the Underground, 1941

I’m not going to complain about an exhibition that brings to your home town three of the drawings made by Henry Moore of Londoners sheltering from the blitz in 1941 in Belsize Park underground station.  The three drawings here – Pink and Green Sleepers (top), Woman Seated in the Underground (above) and Tube Shelter Perspective (below) – began as rough drawings that Moore made in the shelter that he developed once he reached home, using a range of techniques: wax crayon, watercolour wash, pencil, inks.

Tube Shelter Perspective 1941
Henry Moore, Tube Shelter Perspective, 1941

Moore uses a variety of techniques in this series: allowing wax crayon to dispel water-based paints or inks; scratching into paint and crayon with sharp objects; smudging materials; using thick impasto and thin washes; alternating fine wispy lines with heavy contours. The effect is more sculptural in texture than traditional drawing. The rough surfaces and scratchy lines bear a strong resemblance to Moore’s sculptures of reclining figures or natural forms such as weather-worn stone.  Which perhaps explains why, as soon as you enter the next room, you are confronted with his 1938 Recumbent Figure from 1938, dominating the room.

Henry Moore - Recumbent Figure 1938

Henry Moore was 42 and teaching at Chelsea Polytechnic when the Second World War began. At first, his life carried on as normal, though he was unable to work on his sculptures due to a scarcity of materials. One evening, he was delayed on his journey home from London and came upon the scenes that would provide him with these poignant images. When he arrived at his underground station, Belsize Park, he was transfixed by the sight of the sleeping figures of Londoners sheltering on the platform and along the underground passages.  He immediately made a connection with his own art:

I had never seen so many reclining figures and even the holes out of which the trains were coming seemed to me like the holes in my sculpture… people who were obvious strangers to one another were forming intimate groups.

Moore returned several times to make discrete sketches so as to avoid intrusion on the sleepers’ privacy. The sheltering forms seemed to evoke associations between the sleepers and forms in the landscape, unconsciously supporting the wartime propaganda message that the British people were an indomitable force which would prevail against all hostilities.

Warhol, Boy with thumb in his mouth, 1956
Andy Warhol, Boy with Thumb in his Mouth, 1956

Andy Warhol may be better known for his pop art screen prints of Marilyn Monroe and his soup cans, but early in his artistic career, in the early 1950s, he produced some exquisite drawings that revealed him to be a skilled and sensitive draughtsman.  Two of these drawings are on display here – Boy with Thumb in his Mouth and Resting Boy, from 1955-56 – which employ a superb economy of line, with all unnecessary detail removed.  Warhol’s work revealed a fascination with the male body throughout his career, a fascination first evident in his early line drawings of young men from the mid to late 1950s, many of which were included in his ‘Drawings for a Boy Book’ exhibition at the Bodley Gallery, New York in 1956. The style of these drawings show similarities to the work of Henri Matisse and Jean Cocteau, both of whom employed a similar reductive linear drawing technique, and whose work Warhol admired.  There’s a delicacy and tenderness in these drawings that sets them apart from the rest of his wiork.

Warhol, Resting Boy, 1955
Andy Warhol, Resting Boy, 1955

Alongside these two drawings hangs a later one  – a portrait of David Hockney completed in 1974.  There’s a connection here, of course: Hockney played an important role in the British Pop Art movement, and he, too, is a master of the art of line drawing. The Warhol portrait is a pencil line drawing in which the features and textures of Hockney’s hair and shirt have been reduced to abstract lines and shapes. But it is less satisfying than the 1950s drawings, almost certainly being completed by the process of projecting a photograph on to a large sheet of paper, where Warhol would then draw around the areas of the image he wished to define. When the projector was switched off, the drawing remained.

Andy Warhol, David Hockney, 1974
Andy Warhol, David Hockney, 1974

Tucked away in a small side room is David Hockney’s portrait of his mother –  Portrait of the Artist’s Mother, Mrs Laura Hockney, Bradford 1972 – drawn in pen in one session, without revisions.  It’s a gem.

 David Hockney, Portrait of the Artist's Mother, Mrs Laura Hockney, Bradford 1972
David Hockney, Portrait of the Artist’s Mother, Mrs Laura Hockney, Bradford 1972

In this line drawing, Hockney’s mother, sitting in a wing chair, is revealed as frail-looking with a lined face. Wearing a simple dress with short sleeves and a round neck, the figure sits with her hands neatly folded on her lap and her legs crossed. The chair is positioned squarely within the frame but the figure sits upright against the chair’s right-hand corner, which gives a three-quarter view of the sitter. The face is worked with more detail than the rest of the image. The drawing is inscribed ‘Bradford, Aug 2nd, 1972’.  Laura Hockney was then 72 years old, but as her obituary in The Guardian noted, she lived to be 99 years old, ‘deceptively frail-looking during most of the artist’s years of fame, she attended receptions in a wheelchair surrounded by gossip and laughs’. She was subject of many of Hockney’s drawings, paintings and photo-collages, and had encouraged her son in his artistic ambitions when he was a schoolboy.

 Lucian Freud, Narcissus, 1948
Lucian Freud, Narcissus, 1948

Here’s another remarkable drawing: Lucian Freud’s Narcissus, from 1948.  The subject is the boy in classical mythology who fell in love with his own reflection and died of love for himself.  I think it might be a self portrait of the artist obsessed by the details of his own face reflected in the glass below him.  The drawing deploys a variety of techniques:  the texture of the thick woollen sweater is minutely detailed in lines and cross-hatching.  His hair is drawn with quick, flowing pen lines, while the details of his face are marked by pen stipple. The edge of the mirror is close to the subject’s chin, creating a stark division of figure and reflection.  The Tate caption adds: ‘The reflection is cropped above the eyes which, had they been included, would have been looking upwards at the viewer. Instead, the subject is rendered a double object, enclosed in a circularised, interior world.’

Pablo Picasso, Dora Maar Seated, 1938
Pablo Picasso, Dora Maar Seated, 1938

Dora Maar was a a stunningly beautiful, passionate and acutely intelligent young woman, a painter, photographer and reporter, who became Picasso’s lover in 1935, and remained so through the war years. She was one of his most important models during that period and, perhaps as important, a great influence on his art and politics.

Picasso and Dora Maar, photographed by Man Ray, 1937
Picasso and Dora Maar, photographed by Man Ray, 1937

Shortly after their first meeting, in the winter of 1935-36, Dora photographed Picasso in her Paris studio. Dora’s photography and the experimental techniques she employed were a source of inspiration to Picasso. He began to take photographs of her that were the catalyst for a whole series of works. Using photographs of Dora as a starting point, Picasso painted several portraits of Maar.  This preparatory sketch, using ink, gouache and oil paint,shows Dora with her hands crossed elegantly in her lap.

Grayson Perry - Aspects of Myself
Grayson Perry – Aspects of Myself

Centre piece in another room is Grayson Perry’s ceramic vase Aspects of Myself which I suppose is present here because the surface of the vase is inscribed with writing and drawings that reflect key moments in his life or which address issues of identity, class, sexuality and gender that are central to Perry’s identity and sharply satirical view of society and the art world. Aspects of Myself is an autobiographical work showing the artist in the guise of his transvestite alter-ego ‘Claire’.  In an interview with The Art Newspaper in February 2012, the interviewer observed, ‘Another unusual aspect of your work is that it incorporates a lot of content, narrative scenes and often writing’.  Grayson Perry responded:

Oh, you’ve got to have content; I think it’s cowardly to avoid content. I judged a competition the other day and among the 700 works the number of wishy-washy semi-abstract paintings I saw was incredible. It was as though they wanted to make art, but didn’t want to say anything. I hate the aimless, apparently transcendent thing in sub-Rothkos: “Oh, this is all about spirituality.” Fuck off. Why isn’t it about your mother-in-law or poverty or war?

What is your content about?

Things that have interested me all my life: religion, kinky sex, class, taste, folk art – stuff like that.

Paul Nash, Three Rooms, 1937
Paul Nash, Three Rooms, 1937

There are a couple of Paul Nash works in the exhibition; one of them is Three Rooms from 1937, a  pencil, crayon and watercolour sketch on paper. The work reflects Nash’s renewed commitment to the International Surrealist Exhibition in London in 1936. It shows three interrelated rooms invaded by the sky, a forest and the sea. The air of strangeness and the combination of disparate elements is typical of much Surrealist painting and writing, but its mysterious symbolism also recalls the work of William Blake.

See also

 

Mondrian//Nicholson: In Parallel

Mondrian//Nicholson: In Parallel

It was a study in contrasts as I made my way across the courtyard of Somerset House where London Fashion Week was being hosted, and fashion models in glitzy outfits and extraordinary hats posed for photographers with big cameras.  I was headed for Mondrian//Nicholson: In Parallel, a small but brilliant exhibition at the Courtauld, in which the relationship between the two artists is recounted through just 18 works, from the moment when Nicholson visited Mondrian’s studio in Paris early in 1934 to the time when the two went their separate geographical ways some seven years later. Continue reading “Mondrian//Nicholson: In Parallel”

British Masters: In search of England

British Masters: In search of England

What a dispiriting programme this was, the second in the British Masters series presented by James Fox. It offered a survey of British art in the inter-war years, an interesting period in British art when artists were facing up to challenging  continental currents in artistic expression, and responding to the aftermath of the War, growing social distress and intensified class conflict.

But, as in last week’s episode, Fox dealt in elision and hyperbole, determined to shoehorn glimpses of artists and their work into his argument that British artists collectively came to define what it meant to be British – to such a degree, he implied, that they helped Britain win the Second World War:

It was their paintings together that gave us a vision of the England that we were fighting for. In an age of anxiety, artists helped Britain find itself again.  In their paintings they remembered a country to which we could escape; they invented a country that all of us could love. And in the shadow of a new war, they forged a country for which all of us could fight.

While it is true that an argument can be made that artists such as John Nash, Graham Sutherland, Eric Ravilious and others helped define an image of England in the public mind, this largely came about as a result of a phenomenon not mentioned by Fox – the outstanding and iconic images  produced for Shell and London Transport posters by these artists and others during the 1930s. Here is a selection:

 

Graham Sutherland

A Staurt-Hill

Paul Nash

Vanessa Bell

Edward McKnight Kauffer

Eric Ravilious produced a series of acclaimed woodcuts for London Transport, and although Train Landscape (above) was not used as a poster, it might have been.

The image chosen to open and close the episode – The Cornfield by John Nash (top) was painted as a response to war, though not, as Fox implied, the Second World War.  John Nash and his brother Paul had served at the Western Front in the Great War. On their return to England, they rented a studio in Chalfont St Giles, Buckinghamshire, where John painted The Cornfield, a poignant contrast to the brothers’ paintings of devastation and death at the front they were working on as commissions at the same time.  John later said that they used to paint for their own pleasure only after six o’clock, when their work as war artists was over for the day. This explains the long shadows cast by the evening sun across the  golden field of corn that is the focus of the painting.   John Burnside’s wrote a beautiful meditation on The Cornfield for the Tate blog:

Nothing is as it was
in childhood, when we had to learn the names
of objects and colours,

and yet the eye can navigate a field,
loving the way a random stook of corn
is orphaned
– not by shadows; not by light –

but softly, like the tinder in a children’s
story-book, the stalled world raised to life
around a spark: that tenderness in presence,

pale as the flame a sniper waits to catch
across the yards of razor-wire and ditching;
thin as the light that falls from chapel doors,

so everything, it seems,
is resurrected;
not for a moment, not in the sway of the now,

but always,
as the evening we can see
is all the others, all of history:

the man climbing up from the tomb
in a mantle of sulphur,

the struck match whiting his hands
in a blister of light.

In the last four stanzas it’s as if Burnside has moved on to contemplate another painting discussed by Fox in the programme – Stanley Spencer’s Resurrection, Cookham (below).

After the usual tour of Cookham and the details of Resurrection, Fox quickly moved on to consider Spencer’s sex life, spending some time poring over Double Nude Portrait- The Artist with His Second Wife and what it tells us about his two marriages. Fascinating, perhaps, but more pertinent to Fox’s thesis about artists contributing to a sense of national unity during wartime would have been the eight panels he painted while working as a war artist at Lithgows Shipyard in Port Glasgow, on the Clyde in 1940.

These works seem much more relevant to the question of how British people saw themselves in relation to the war effort.  Spencer depicts an egalitarian working environment, one operating through co-operation and co-ordination. There are no foremen. It’s a vision of a new social order and a challenge to the existing order, and articulates a mood that emerged during the war and was expressed ultimately in the Labour landslide in the 1945 election.

Perhaps Spencer’s complicated sex life was the sort of thing that Fox was referring to in his blog on the BBC website when he wrote in advance of the series, ‘I promise you that there will be some jaw-dropping stories’.  Or perhaps it was the story of the obnoxious president  of the Royal Academy and painter of endless horse portraits, Sir Alfred Munnings, getting pissed before making a speech in the presence of Winston Churchill in which he savaged modernists. But Dr Fox loves Munnings – he, too, helped define true Englishness.

The final work that Fox considered was John Piper’s Interior, Coventry Cathedral (below), painted in the immediate aftermath of the German bombing raid on the city on 14 November 1940. For the 12 hours German bombers laid waste to the city below, destroying thousands of buildings and killing hundreds of civilians.  Early the following morning, Piper, an official war artist, painted the aftermath of the attack.

James Fox said of the painting:

It shows the city’s great medieval cathedral in ruins. The roof has collapsed, the windows are smashed, and the rubble is still smouldering.  It was a metaphor for the entire British nation as it teetered on the brink of annihilation. In the darkest hour of World War 2, the public actually saw it as an image of defiance. Because in the face of all that terrible destruction, those old English walls are standing firm. And if a building won’t give up, neither will the people.

The story is a good one, and the contextualisation was appropriate.  But surely, in a series about art, there should be more of a focus on the art itself?  What makes this a great piece of art – apart from the circumstances of its creation?  How does it relate to Piper’s other work and his artistic strategies?  This is not a new complaint about art documentaries on TV,  and the response is usually along the lines of: to attract and hold an audience it’s necessary to focus on drama and personalities, rather than abstractions. And there isn’t time to go into all the twists and turns of art movements.

But how long would it take to outline the role that artists like Paul Nash or John Piper played at this time in creating something new – a blend of abstraction and an older tradition of landscape painting to produce an approach that was distinctively British?  Surely that is an interesting story – not the fanciful idea that they helped win the Second World War?

It’s a story that Alexandra Harris tells in her prize-winning book Romantic Moderns. She writes that ‘Piper is so well-known today for his romantic vision of churches and country houses that it can be difficult to imagine him as a leader of the abstract movement’. In Breakwaters at Seaford (1937, below), jetties and waves are inked ‘with calligraphic sketchiness’ and paper is torn and ripped, leaving raw edges exposed, to evoke a sense of winter wind and waves.

A painting like this that is part-collage reveals the influence on Piper of the Cubist practice (Braque, for instance) of pasting pieces of paper, newsprint and so on into a painting.  This can be seen clearly in Beach with Starfish (below).
But, says Harris, ‘whereas Braque and Picasso made their collages indoors, arranging wallpapers and veneers with infinite deliberation to signify tables, bottles, and guitars, Piper sat outside with a board on his knees, opening his work to nature and to chance’.

Piper crystallised his ideas in an essay, ‘Abstraction on the Beach’, in which he argued that ‘abstraction is a luxury’ – and as old as the hills.  He wrote that,

The early Christian sculptors, wall-painters and glass-painters had a sensible attitude towards abstraction. However hard one tries … one cannot catch them out indulging in pure abstraction. Their abstraction, such as it is, is always subservient to an end – the Christian end, as it happened.  Abstraction is a luxury that has been left to the present day to exploit It is a luxury just as any single ideal is, and like a single ideal it should be approached all the time, but not pre-supposed all the time. To pre-suppose it always, if you are a painter is to paint the same picture always: or else to give up painting altogether because there is nothing left to paint….

Piper was determined to renew the connection between art and life, that would look for the sacred in ordinary, local things.On the beach, for example:

At the edge of the sea, sand. Then, unwashed by the waves at low tide, grey-blue shingle against the warm brown sand: an intense contradiction in colour, in the same tone, on the same plane. Fringing this, dark seaweed, an irregular litter of it, with a jagged edge towards the sea broken here and there by washed-up objects; boxes, tins, waterlogged sand shoes, banana skins, starfish, cuttlefish, dead seagulls, sides of boxes with THIS SIDE UP on them, fragments of sea-chewed linoleum with a washed-out pattern. This line of magnificent wreckage vanishes out of sight in the distance, but it is a continous line that girdles England, and can be seen reappearing on the skyline in the other direction along this flat beach. Behind this rich and constricting belt against the sand dunes there is drier sand, sparser shingle, unwashed even at high tides, with dirty banana skins now and sides of boxes with the THIS SIDE UP almost unreadable. That, in whatever direction you look, is a subject worthy of contemporary painting. Pure abstraction is undernourished. It should at least be allowed to feed bare on a beach with tins and broken bottles.

This tension between nationalism and internationalism, between abstraction and the English landscape tradition, in British art of the period makes for an interesting story, and challenging questions. Has British art been at its best when drawing on influences from abroad? Or when it draws strength from native customs and traditions?

Paul Nash was a pioneer of modernism in Britain, promoting the avant-garde European styles of abstraction and Surrealism in the 1920s and 1930s. In 1933 he co-founded the influential modern art movement Unit One with fellow artists Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth (no mention of them by Fox), and the critic Herbert Read. It was a short-lived but important move towards the revitalisation of English art in the inter-war period.  But then, in Axis, England’s most adventurous art magazine at the time, Paul Nash expressed his desire to be a modernist while still working in a native tradition:

Whether it is possible to ‘go modern’ and still ‘be British’ is a question vexing quite a few people today […] The battle lines have been drawn up: internationalism versus an indigenous culture; renovation versus conservatism; the industrial versus the pastoral; the functional versus the futile.

He explained why he was ‘For, but Not With’ the abstract painters, able to appreciate abstraction, but ultimately more satisfied by nature: by stones and leaves, trees and waves.  Nash wanted to create a national identity for modern art, and began by exploring the coastline of Dorset, its cliffs studded with fossils, and the chalk downland marked by paths like mysterious engravings on the land.

Nash was a member of the English Surrealist movement, and his greatest paintings were symbolic representations of specific landscapes – the Dorset coast (above), the ancient stone circle at Avebury in Wiltshire, and of other ancient sites in England including Wittemham Clumps (below).  The Clumps – the two dome-shaped hills topped by a thick clump of trees – had been familiar to Nash since spending family holidays nearby from 1909. He painted the Clumps in a series of dream-like works, three of which present the vernal (or spring) equinox, with the sun and moon depicted simultaneously in the sky.

Like Piper, Nash wanted to reconcile modernity with Britishness. Having tried abstraction, he returned to painting of natural forms – stones, leaves and trees. Although he greatly admired (and in many cases rubbed shoulders with) Picasso, Max Ernst, Magritte and other modernists, he continued to find inspiration in nature and the British landscape. He saw himself in the tradition of English mystical painters such as William Blake and Samuel Palmer.

The 1935 painting Equivalents for the Megaliths (above) shows Nash working in both traditions – juxtaposing avant-garde with the mystical spirit of a place in the English landscape. Near the horizon a hill-fort or barrow is visible, while dominating the foreground are his equivalents for the megaliths, the Avebury standing stones.  Assembled in a cornfield are the powerful geometric forms of a gridded screen, standing and lying cylinders, and a steel-grey girder.  Alexandra Harris explains that equivalents was a word that Roger Fry ‘often used to explain the goal of non-representational art, arguing that instead of mimicking the world the picture must be allowed to make its own, equivalent, reality’.

Nash was not the only artist ‘worried that they might be heading for … abstract oblivion’. Another was Ivon Hitchens.  For Hitchens, the landscape was important as ‘a peg on which to hang a painting’. In other words,he wanted to paint something more than the landscape in front of him. After his house was bombed in 1940, Hitchens moved to a patch of woodland near Petworth in Sussex, living at first in a caravan. Here, using just patches of colour and brush strokes, he created landscapes (below) with a sense of movement, depth and space.

Eric Ravilious followed a similar path, working to create a traditional, non-chauvinistic sort of Englishness, and became one of the best-known artists of the 1930s.  Inspired by the landscape of the South Downs, his paintings featured, in his words, ‘lighthouses, rowing-boats, beds, beaches, greenhouses’.  Some dismissed Ravilious’s art as cosy or parochial, but he was a masterful watercolourist whose paintings are never merely pretty. They reveal the same complicated relationship with modernism as the work of Nash or Sutherland. ‘I like definite shapes’, he wrote, and his landscapes approach the abstract with their flat planes and hard lines and patterns.

A far less well-known painter in the inter-war years was David Bomberg.  He had studied at the Slade alongside Stanley Spencer and C.R.W. Nevinson and in his early work had been greatly influenced by cubism.  But in the post-war years his work, too, became increasingly dominated by landscapes drawn from nature that combined abstract, expressionist forms with naturalism.  During and shortly after the Second World War he spent time in Cornwall, where he painted Tregor and Tregoff (below).

In 1944 he painted Evening in the City of London, which, like Piper’s painting of the bombed-out Coventry Cathedral, seemed to express optimism through its strong blocks of warm colour. It has been described as the ‘most moving of all paintings of wartime Britain’.  Bomberg once said: ‘I want to translate the life of a great city … into art that shall not be photographic, but expressive’. Andrew Graham Dixon writes:

Like many another wartime Londoner, Bomberg was struck by the seemingly miraculous way in which Christopher Wren’s great cathedral of St Paul’s had survived the incessant bombing attacks of the Nazis. He took care to show the cathedral from a distance, framed by the desolation around it. According to the artist’s wife, Lilian Bomberg, “He got permission to climb to the top of a church, in Cheapside, I think, and painted St Paul’s from its east side.” The church in question was probably St Bride’s. Access to public buildings deemed to be prime targets for enemy attack was severely restricted.

The tension between realism and abstraction can also be seen in the work of Henry Moore. In his sculpture he had moved steadily from classicism to abstraction and his work became a target for the popular press.  When his abstract Mother and Child in stone was put on display in a front garden in Hampstead, the work proved controversial with local residents and the local press ran a campaign against the piece for two years.

Yet the Shelter Drawings, created by Moore after he was commissioned as an official war artist, transformed his reputation. Along with the coalmining drawings also produced during the war, they transformed miners and London’s working class sheltering in the Underground into heroic figures, stoic and quietly determined.

James Fox touched on the two traditions of painting and photography that mingled from the 1930s onwards. There was often collaboration between photographers and documentary film-makers – such as Humphrey Spender, Bill Brandt and John Grierson – and painters, including Stanley Spencer, and the example Fox chose, William Coldstream.

I didn’t find the Coldstream images especially interesting (Fox observed that his early work was ‘rather pedestrian’, but I love the photos that Spender took in 1937-38, when he went to Bolton on behalf of Mass Observation, the ‘fact-finding body’ set up by Humphrey Jennings and Tom Harrison to document the lives of ordinary British people. As Spender saw it, his role as photographer was to provide visual “information” to complement the written accounts.  This is his famous ‘Washing Line’ shot:

James Fox mentioned how Bill Brandt was photographing the Sitwells at Renishaw Hall at the same time as John Piper was painting the great house.  Brandt photographed people in all kinds of circumstances in the 1930s:

Finally, what about some art produced by people at the other end of the social scale to the likes of Piper, Spencer or Nash?  The Ashington group consisted of Northumberland miners who first came together in 1934 through the Workers Education Association to study ‘something different’ – art appreciation. In an effort to understand what it was all about, their tutor Robert Lyon encouraged them to learn by doing it themselves.

The images that the group produced were fascinating and  captured every aspect of life in and around their mining community – above and below ground, from scenes around the kitchen table and on their allotments, to the dangerous and dirty world of the coal face.  Was this the England for which James Fox was searching?

Leslie Brownrigg – The Miner, c.1935

Harry Wilson – Committee Meeting, c.1937

George Blessed – Whippets

Fred Laidler – Fish and Chips

The Art of War

The Art of War

Last night’s Channel 4 documentary, The Art of War, presented by Jon Snow, was an impassioned and absorbing survey of the ways in which British artists have responded to the horrors of war and, since the First World War, challenged the idea that war art should simply celebrate valour, victory and glory. Snow traced this critical tradition from the artists of the First World War – Richard Nevinson and Paul Nash – via the work of Stanley Spencer and Henry Moore in the Second World War, to the work of contemporary artists such as Jeremy Deller and Steve McQueen.  He demonstrated how Britain’s war artists have pushed the boundaries in their determination to express the pain and tragedy of war.

Richard Nevinson was under the spell of the Italian Futurists movement when he was appointed an official war artist in 1917. At first his paintings expressed the Futurists’ exultation in the drama and modernity of war, but their tenor soon changed, as a result of his experience as an ambulance driver.  His painting Paths of Glory (above) was initially banned by the military censors, but Nevinson managed to display it during the war, attracting attention by taping ‘censored’ across the image.  The ‘paths of glory’ have led these soldiers to death in a wasteland, imprisoned by barbed wire, faces down, anonymous and unrecognisable, slowly decomposing into the landscape.

In La Patrie (above), Nevinson used his own memories of what he had seen as an ambulance driver in Dunkirk following the early fighting around Ypres.

The artistic reputation of Paul Nash was just beginning to take off when the war broke out. Nash joined the Artists’ Rifles and saw service in the Ypres Salient before being invalided home. While he was recovering he exhibited works that depicted the desolate landscapes of the trenches, which led to Nash becoming an official war artist. We Are Making a New World (above) is one of the most memorable images of the First World War, the title mocking the ambitions of the war, as the sun rises on a scene of the total desolation.

In early 1918 he was commissioned to paint a Flanders battlefield for a Hall of Remembrance (which was never completed). In depicting one of the most battle-scarred areas of the Ypres sector, Nash shows two human figures overwhelmed by a hellish landscape of flooded shell craters, shattered trees, concrete blocks and corrugated iron.

Paul Nash also responded to the Second World War, most memorably with Totes Meer (above).  This painting, the title of which is German for ‘dead sea’, was inspired by a dump of wrecked aircraft at Cowley in Oxfordshire. Nash based the image on photographs he took there: ‘The thing looked to me suddenly, like a great inundating sea … the breakers rearing up and crashing on the plain. And then, no: nothing moves, it is not water or even ice, it is something static and dead’.

In The Art of War, Jon Snow was most visibly moved when visiting the Sandham Memorial Chapel at Burghclere in Hampshire, which is decorated with an outstanding series of large-scale paintings by Stanley Spencer (above).  The images were inspired by his experiences as a First World War medical orderly and soldier in Macedonia,  and are considered to be among his finest achievements.

The chapel was commissioned by Mary and  Louis Behrends as a memorial to Mary’s brother, who died in Macedonia.  The main painting,  The Resurrection of the Soldiers (above), shows soldiers climbing out of their graves bearing white crosses and embracing their dead comrades. One man kneels at Christ’s side, his head in his lap, one man caresses a turtle, while another clasps a dove to his chest. Spencer wrote of the painting:

During the war, I felt the only way to end the ghastly experience would be if everyone suddenly decided to indulge in every degree or form of sexual love, carnal love, bestiality, anything you like to call it. These are the joyful inheritances of mankind.

In his film, Snow said:

Had his paintings been for a Wren church in the city, Spencer might even now be celebrated as the creator of our own Sistine Chapel. From the outside, the Sandham Memorial Chapel is unremarkable. Step inside and you are drawn into an account of war no artist has ever previously conjured.

Some of the best-known art works of the Second World War are Henry Moore’s sketches and watercolours of Londoners sheltering in the Underground during the Blitz.   After the outbreak of war in 1939, Moore commuted from his home in Kent to London where he was teaching at the Chelsea School of Art. He began making drawings of people sheltering in the Underground during the German bombing raids and these came to the attention of the War Artists Advisory Committee, chaired by Kenneth Clark, then Director of the National Gallery.  Moore was commissioned to make larger and more finished versions. When the drawings were exhibited in 1940 and 1941 they proved very popular with the public.

Returning to the work of Stanley Spencer, Jon Snow discussed his eight epic Second World War friezes, Shipbuilding on the Clyde, which depict the various stages of  work in the shipyard- from riveting and pipe-bending to welding and rope making.  Spencer was commissioned to paint civilian war efforts and he immersed himself in every aspect of the Glaswegian shipbuilding process to produce these images.

Snow concluded his survey by examining British Artists’ responses to recent conflicts.  He discussed Jeremy Deller’s Baghdad, 5 March 2007 (aka It Is What It Is) with the artist, who described his experience of taking the work – a car destroyed in a 2007 truck bomb attack among the book stalls of Al-Mutanabbi Street in Baghdad – on tour around the United States.

Jeremy Deller, It Is What It Is

Of this work, Jonathan Jones wrote in The Guardian:

With his new work, Baghdad, 5 March 2007, at the Imperial War Museum, he makes us see real death. It is the closest he could get, within the parameters of public display, to laying out the bodies of Iraq’s killed on the floor of the gallery.

A dismembered body is what you immediately think of when you come into the museum and see a car destroyed in a 2007 truck bomb attack among the book stalls of Al-Mutanabbi Street in Baghdad, an attack that killed 38 people. Lying among the missiles, tanks and war planes in the museum’s main hall is the eviscerated corpse of what was once a car. It is more than wrecked. It appears to have been flung in the air, crushed, then burned in an inferno. It suggests a human body in a deeply perturbing way. First, because it is so flattened, with viscera of pipes and tanks sticking out. Then again it is scorched by fire to a colour that evokes dried blood. It looks curiously like Lindow Man in the British Museum.

That visual suggestiveness is not the work of a sculptor in a studio. Deller did not make this. He had the idea of exhibiting a car from a Baghdad bombing, was able to get his hands on one, and toured it around America as an object of curiosity before the Imperial War Museum made the brave decision to show it in their displays. The horrible sculptural quality of this relic is accidental, and it forces you to confront the real suffering of the people killed and wounded in Baghdad on that particular day. It is a simple enough thought: if the bomb did this to metal, what did it do to flesh?

The truth stares you in the face, while gleaming machines of death loom above. It makes you imagine not just this reality, but all the realities those weapons created, from a burned-out Panzer on the eastern front to a London street just hit by a V1. Deller has often created works of populist social theatre, but here he achieves something new: the most serious and thoughtful response to the Iraq war by any British artist.

Poet Abdul Zahra Zaki recites a poem outside the shell of the Al-Shahbandar café as part of a protest by artists and writers against the bombing of Al-Mutanabbi Street, March 8, 2007

The final piece chosen by Jon Snow was Steve McQueen’s Queen and Country. McQueen, collaborated with 160 families whose loved ones lost their lives in Iraq. He created a cabinet containing a series of facsimile postage sheets, each one dedicated to a deceased soldier. The Art Fund, the UK’s leading art charity, presented this cabinet to the Imperial War Museum in November 2007 and toured the work around the UK between 2007 and 2010.

Queen and Country was created by Steve McQueen in response to a visit he made to Iraq in 2003 following his appointment by the Imperial War Museum’s Art Commissions Committee as an official UK war artist. During the six days McQueen spent in Iraq, he was moved and inspired by the camaraderie of the servicemen and women that he met. He proposed that portraits of those who have lost their lives during the conflict be issued as stamps by Royal Mail.

An official set of Royal Mail stamps struck me as an intimate but distinguished way of highlighting the sacrifice of individuals in defence of our national ideals.  The stamps would form an intimate reflection of national loss that would involve the families of the dead and permeate the everyday – every household and every office.

While discussions were under way with Royal Mail, Steve made Queen and Country – a cabinet containing a series of facsimile postage sheets bearing multiple portrait heads, each one dedicated to an individual, with details of name, regiment, age and date of death printed in the margin. The images were chosen by the families of the deceased.Viewers are invited to pull out the double-sided panels bearing the sheets from a wooden box and thereby create an intimate space to contemplate the imagery.

Steve McQueen Queen and Country (detail)

Steve McQueen: ‘Queen and Country’ (detail)

Until Royal Mail agrees to issue the stamps, the artist considers the overall work incomplete. The Art Fund is spearheading the campaign to gain public support for McQueen’s vision for Royal Mail to officially issue the stamps.

Steve McQueen with Queen and Country

Steve McQueen with ‘Queen and Country’

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Jaume Plensa: Beyond Limits

Jaume Plensa: Beyond Limits

When we visited Chatsworth last Saturday, we found an exhibition of  modern and contemporary sculpture from Sotheby’s – Beyond Limits. This is the fourth year that the exhibition has been mounted at Chatsworth and is increasingly recognised as one of the most prestigious platforms for displaying monumental modern and contemporary sculpture in Europe. This event featured works by Henry Moore, Antony Gormley, Marc Quinn, Manolo Valdés and Jaume Plensa set against the backdrop of this magnificent English estate. A Sotheby’s video about the event can be viewed here.

These are the two Plensa pieces on display at Chatsworth – Heart of Trees (top) and Song of Songs. Heart of  Trees consists of a life-size bronze figure, with a tree growing from the centre. The skin of the figure is covered with characters spelling out the names of composers. The other installation Song of Songs was interesting, but probably not displayed to best advantage – viewed behind bars in the Game larder. When previously exhibited, people have been able to walk through the steel curtain of suspended letters spelling out the words of the Biblical text.

I’m highlighting the work of Jaume Plensa here because this is not our first encounter with the sculptor’s work. In June his monumental piece, Dream, was unveiled on the old Sutton Manor colliery site at St. Helens (see my earlier post here).  In 2007, working closely with a group of ex-miners, he was commissioned to create a new work on the site of the former colliery as part of the Big Art Project, a major national public art initiative linked to Channel 4. The proposed sculpture titled Dream takes the form of a young girl’s head with eyes closed, seemingly in a dream-like state. It is fabricated in pre-cast concrete, with a white, marble-concrete aggregate mix, so that it has a luminescent finish.

“My work is first and foremost about celebrating life and the human experience of standing in between past and present, present and future, knowledge and ignorance. I fell in love with this site in St Helens as soon as I saw it. The spectacular setting, proud heritage, vision for the future, and the warmth, humour and passion of the former miners I have met are all inspirational. To capture the essence, hopes, and aspirations of a whole community on this scale is a great honour but also a responsibility.” – Jaume Plensa

We also encountered Plensa in Nice last year, where his Conversation in Nice is displayed on the Place Masséna. The square was renovated in 2007, accompanied by the installation of the artwork along the tramway: seven statues devised by Plensa, representing the seven continents.

Jaume Plensa, born in Barcelona in 1955, is one of the leading sculptors in the field of plastic arts. He works in a wide range of media including drawing, sculpture, print-making, opera scenery, video art, acoustic installations, text and light. Plensa is a Catalan artist born in 1955. He’s worked all over the globe and frequently, but not always, uses the human form. He also manipulates the effects of natural elements such as a light and water in his work.

A significant part of Jaume Plensa’s production is set in the context of public sculpture, a sphere in which he has permanent works installed all over the world. The Crown Fountain, in Chicago’s Millennium Park, is one of his latest and most renowned projects.  According to Plensa, the Crown Fountain was inspired by the people of Chicago and the city’s historic connection with water, including the Chicago River and the great Lake Michigan. The fountain features two 50-foot glass block towers at each end of a shallow reflecting pool. Plensa used faces of 1,000 Chicago citizens projected on LED screens, with water seeming to flow from their mouths through a water outlet in the screen. This is in reference to the use of gargoyles from whose mouths water flows out in traditional fountains. Each image is shown from four to five minutes all year round, while the water is on from mid-spring though mid-autumn.

Another work is Blake in Gateshead, a laser beam that on special occasions shines high into the night sky over the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art.

On 16 June 2008 Jaume’s sculpture Breathing was dedicated by the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, as a memorial to journalists killed whilst undertaking their work. The sculpture in steel and glass is situated above a new wing of BBC Broadcasting House in London. At 22:00 GMT each evening a beam of light is  projected from the sculpture extending 1km into the sky for 30 minutes to coincide with the BBC News at Ten.

El Alma del Ebro was created for the International Exposition in Zaragoza, the theme of which was ‘Water and Sustainable Development’. It is eleven metres high, the sculpted letters representing cells of the human body which is over 60% water. Its white letters and hollow structure invite the view to look inside and reflect on the relationship between human beings and water.

Finally, a gallery of some of the other exhibits in Beyond Limits at Chatsworth:

Three Piece Reclining Figure: Draped by Henry Moore

Dancers by Fernando Botero

Buddha by Niki De Saint Phalle

Angel of the North (life-size maquette) by Antony Gormley

Air Gets into Everything, Even Nothing by Ugo Rondinone

Mariposas by Manolo Valdes

Ariadna 1 by Manolo Valdes

Archaeology of Desire by Marc Quinn

Narcissus Garden by Yoyoi Kusama

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Tate Liverpool: This is Sculpture

While we were at the Tate we also explored the wonderfully varied and stimulating exhibition that takes up two floors – DLA Piper Series: This is Sculpture. It provides an overview of the history of modern and contemporary sculpture, but in an ambitious and unique way: pieces are not exhibited in schools or in chronological order, instead different forms and pieces from different periods jostle with each other in totally unexpected ways. Sculpture in the form of object, installation, assemblage and ready-made sits alongside more surprising forms, such as painting, video, photography, language and performance.

DLA Piper Series: This is Sculpture includes artists such as Sir Jacob Epstein, Henry Moore, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Arman, Yayoi Kusama, Gilbert & George, and Cornelia Parker.

One floor is devoted to Sculpture: The Physical World, curated by artist Michael Craig-Martin. He has arranged the works on display in a way to enhance both their commonalities and variety.

The display offers the visitor an opportunity to encounter multiple forms of sculpture juxtaposed in a thought-provoking environment that underscores the myriad responses of the viewer in relation to works of art.

The concept behind the Sculpture Remixed floor is of a nightclub: you grab headphones pre-programmed with a dance mix and wander round the varied exhibits, arranged around an illuminated dancefloor.

This is Sculpture at Tate Liverpool: introductory video

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