Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Century at Jerwood, featuring Frink's Walking Madonna

When I went to Hastings earlier this year I resolved to find a way to return there in an employed capacity. Lo and behold, I was asked to curate an exhibition at Jerwood Gallery, featuring work from the Ingram and Jerwood Collections of Modern British Art. The show, which begins in October 2016, is tentatively entitled 'Century', and it will feature (approximately) 100 works covering a period of (approximately!) 100 years.

There won't be 100 different artists, though. While the collections are fairly eclectic there are particular artists who feature prominently in one or both, so inevitably there will be a bias in their favour. I think we will end up with a vision of 20th century British painting and sculpture that might surprise some people, that is if I don't go crazy trying to whittle down my 'long list'.

One highlight will be Elizabeth Frink's 'Walking Madonna', which stands two metres tall but seems more imposing than that statistic suggests. Of only three cast, one stands at Chatsworth House and another at Salisbury Cathedral. The third is owned by the Ingram Collection.

I was passing through Salisbury last month and stopped to visit the Cathedral, a building I had seen from the ring road countless times but hadn't actually visited in years. My main aim was to look at the engraved prism made by Laurence Whistler to commemorate his brother Rex. I'd forgotten about the Walking Madonna and so came upon the sculpture unawares. Hard to imagine another work of art that would fit in that environment, but this one certainly does.

It has been in situ since 1981, when the Dean of Salisbury Cathedral wrote to his parishioners to warn them of its imminent arrival. He wrote:

This figure symbolises ... human dignity and creativity over militarism and totalitarian disregard for human dignity and rights.

Something similar could be said today.

Friday, 6 November 2015

Hammer Time: Modern British Art at Auction

Augustus John, Self-portrait, 1901, at Bonhams
For London's auctioneers, Modern British art is a booming business. Prices keep rising as interest in the period grows, and there's no shortage of work being put up for auction by the descendants of collectors active in the 1950s and 1960s. For those of us not in the market for a Lowry or even an Auerbach sketch, there's an opportunity to go and have a look at the work, marvel at the estimates and enjoy the whole showbiz art world thing.

The newspapers like auction season for its Antiques-Road-Show-moments, as when this Ravilious watercolour went under the hammer in Banbury last year. That story made the Daily Mail, and of course it was the high price fetched by the painting that attracted the paper's attention. If this had the effect of spreading the artist's name, which I'm sure it did, the downside is that a Ravilious watercolour is now unlikely to be bought by a public institution.

Eric Ravilious, 'Belle Tout Lighthouse', 1939, at Christies
Which is a pity, as there are two Ravilious watercolours in this month's auctions, an early painting called 'Drought' at Sotheby's (est. £40k-60k) and at Christie's a 1939 piece which was included in the exhibition at Dulwich, and which is being sold as 'Beachy Head Lighthouse (Belle Tout)' (est. £80k-120k). I wrote a note for the catalogue, which you can read here if you're interested. I hope whoever buys this lovely watercolour continues to lend it for exhibition as its current owner has done on several occasions.
LS Lowry, Tuesday Morning, Pendlebury, 1947, at Christies
Otherwise, this season brings Lowry, Lowry and more Lowry. Award for highest estimate goes to Sotheby's, with the frankly terrifying 'Father and Two Sons' priced around the £2 million mark, but Bonhams and Christie's both have a number of studies and drawings with some estimates lower than ten thousand. Henry Moore is also heavily represented, while Christie's has some unusual sculpture by Barbara Hepworth.

Barbara Hepworth, Hand Sculpture, 1953, at Christies
There are quite a few paintings by well-known artists in their signature styles, but also some more unusual work. Here are a few of my favourites, in no particular order. The sizes are dictated by the copy-able pictures available on the auction websites. My top pick I think has to be the John self-portrait at the top of the page - no wonder everyone thought he was a genius as a young man.

Edward Burra, Still Life with Teeth, 1946, at Sotheby's

Ceri Richards, Tinplate Workers, 1942, at Christies

John Craxton, Spring Leaves, 1943, at Bonhams

Henry Moore, Two Women Bathing a Child, 1946, at Christies

Augustus John, Ida, c1905, at Christies

Paul Nash, Objects in a Field, 1936, at Christies

Richard Nevinson, Road Through a Forest, c1920s, at Bonhams

Keith Vaughan, Landscape with Figures, 1944, at Bonhams

 Happy bidding!

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Aerial Creatures: David Jones and Peter Lanyon

Peter Lanyon, Soaring Flight, 1960, Arts Council (copyright artist's estate)
I always look forward to the autumn exhibition season, and this year the harvest is particularly, er, fruitful. Nobody needs to be told to go and see the Goya portraits at the National Gallery, but you might not know that the curator is Xavier Bray of Dulwich Picture Gallery, without whom there would have been no Ravilious show. He's my ideal kind of art historian, knowledgable and serious but also down-to-earth and good fun.

I've no doubt people are queuing round Trafalgar Square to see the show, as we British love our portraits as we did in Gainsborough's day, but there are other exhibitions that are well worth seeing. One of the reasons why the Courtauld Gallery is my favourite London venue is that you never know what they will show next. A glance through the gallery's exhibitions archive shows just how eclectic the programme is, with recent outings for Goya, Egon Schiele, Jasper Johns, Durer, Picasso and Peter Lely. It is a rather male list, come to think of it...

Peter Lanyon, Thermal, 1960, Tate (copyright artist's estate)
After Goya's often gravity-defying witches comes post-war aerialist, Peter Lanyon, an artist who meant nothing to me until Dr James Fox explained how his paintings worked. Lanyon seems something of a surprise choice for the Courtauld, but an inspired one, following Towner's William Gear show at a time when post-war British abstraction is not getting much attention.

Not that Lanyon was an abstract artist in the way that Ben Nicholson was in the 1930s, when it was strictly circles and squares only. Lanyon worked that rich margin between the abstract and the real, which in his case meant the landscape, coast and sky of Cornwall; his gliding paintings evoke (I imagine, having never done it) the strange experience of flying alone and unpowered, like a bird with prosthetic wings. For a more in-depth analysis, have a look at Laura Cummings' review.

David Jones, Capel-y-Ffin, 1927, Nat Museum Wales (copyright artist's estate)
Another artist who portrayed the invisible air as a palpable thing, albeit from the ground, was David Jones, the Anglo-Welsh artist whose work is fiercely championed by fans but not easily appreciated by people who haven't put a certain amount of time into the task. Actually this isn't quite true. For a few years in the 1920s David Jones was a bright star, a watercolourist who pleasantly combined sundry influences (Cezanne, Japanese prints, Celtic design) to create beautifully designed, distinctive paintings of places he loved, from Brockley to Capel-y-Ffin.

He was one of an exciting group of painters in a medium undergoing an unlikely 20th century renaissance, and something of a leader. Ravilious and Bawden admired his dry brush technique, and it was Jones who, as Secretary, invited the latter to show with the Seven and Five in 1932.

David Jones, The Terrace, 1929, Tate (copyright artist's estate)
But Jones was not content with his pleasing landscapes. Never a believer in traditional perspective or classical values, he moved further and further from simple representation. In the early 1930s, having written his extraordinary Great War poem 'In Parenthesis', he suffered a severe nervous breakdown, and it is tempting to see the increasing strangeness of his paintings at this time as a symptom of mental disturbance. One could say as easily that Van Gogh's greatest paintings were the product of madness, and I disagree profoundly with this view for reasons I imagine are fairly obvious.

David Jones didn't paint his extraordinary, melting, multi-layered paintings because he was going mad but because he was trying to push himself ever further towards a particular kind of vision. In a way he achieved this layering of realities, from everyday life as he saw it to Arthurian myth, most effectively in his poetry, yet the paintings give a great deal to the patient viewer. You can't simply look at a Jones watercolour and move on. You have to explore it. There are whole worlds contained in his more experimental paintings and sometimes it takes a while just to identify different objects, structures, layers. Everything is transparent.

David Jones, Flora in Calix-Light, 1950, Kettle's Yard (copyright artist's estate)
That this was a deliberate approach is clear when you look at his copper engravings from the 1920s, which show a similarly multi-layered approach. What is so remarkable about his work in watercolour (to which he added smudged graphite for its silvery quality and white body paint for substance) is his ability to dissolve boundaries, abandon traditional ideas of space and yet retain a kind of sense. There's a suggestion of medieval manuscript illumination in the pictures, but mixed in with the flat world of signs and symbols - chalices, thorns, unicorns - is a real, three-dimensional world in which land and sea dissolve into air which is translucent yet solid.

I think David Jones was a remarkable artist, far more adventurous than his mentor Eric Gill. Simon Martin and the Pallant House Gallery succeeded in persuading people that Edward Burra was a great artist despite choosing watercolour rather than oil paint as his medium (current auction estimates for his work are fairly shocking). Jones is harder to get into, but worth the effort.

'Soaring Flight: Peter Lanyon's Gliding Paintings' is at the Courtauld Gallery.
'David Jones: Vision and Memory' is at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester. The accompanying book, by Ariane Banks and Paul Hills, covers engravings and inscriptions as well as watercolour, and is thoroughly recommended.

Garn Fawr & Trehilyn, with John Piper & Griff Rhys Jones

This autumn has had something of a Welsh theme. Having visited Clive Hicks-Jenkins in the Ystwyth valley and publishers Frances and Nicolas McDowall on the banks of the Wye, we headed to Strumble Head, Pembrokeshire for a half-term break. Over the years we've had odd winter weekends at one or other of the fabulous old cottages managed by Under the Thatch, but Trehilyn turned out to be grander (and warmer) than most.

Trehilyn, nr. Strumble Head - as seen on TV!
The house is divided in two. Our end had four outside doors, crog lofts for sleeping and a woodburner. Also underfloor heating, which was a surprise. In fact the place had evidently been done up with considerable care, but I would never have guessed how much skill, cash and labour had been poured into this out-of-the-way farmhouse. It turned out that Trehilyn had been bought some years earlier by Griff Rhys Jones, and subjected to a televised renovation, which we watched one evening.

Sunshine in west Wales...
I'd never much fancied the idea of buying a doer-upper, but this BBC series, 'A Pembrokeshire Farm', put me off for good. The 'before' pictures showed a farmhouse neglected almost to dereliction, hideous 70s wallpaper peeling off the saturated walls. The house had a grouted roof, a regional speciality, which had persuaded architectural historian Greg Stevenson (founder, incidentally of Under the Thatch) to enlist as a consultant to the series. But the roof was in terrible shape and had to be replaced with slates, every one of which was drilled and then pegged down.

Cottage interior, with apologies to Hammershoi
In fact the house was stripped down to its stone walls, and then rebuilt as authentically as possible. Of course, as the programme pointed out, there's nothing authentic about an 18th/19th century house with underfloor heating and a power shower, but I do see the point in using traditional building techniques - as a living record, if nothing else. So the walls were plastered on the inside and rendered on the outside with lime plaster that had to be applied by hand. It didn't look particularly fun. Griff was given the job of building a bed, which, rather bizarrely, we slept in. Is that a claim to fame?

Indigenous building: John Piper's studio, Garn Fawr.
When we arrived it was dark, but the following morning we trudged up the hill in the direction of Strumble Head. As we approached a rocky outcrop the scene began to seem familar, but it took a bit of research to jog my memory. This was Garn Fawr, John and Myfanwy Piper's Welsh retreat for many years, and the subject of innumerable paintings. In the 1960s they bought two tumbledown cottages, one to the left of this picture where they stayed, and this one, John's studio, which looks as though it sprouted from the bracken.

Cottage and rocks, Garn Fawr
There's a nice post here on Garn Fawr, with some paintings illustrated, and I could see why the quintessential Romantic Modern was attracted to the place. It was wild enough on a mild day in October. In a January storm it must seem like the end of the world. Strumble Head is about half a mile beyond the chimney above, but Garn Fawr is much more atmospheric.

The view south from Garn Fawr

Friday, 30 October 2015

Lectures & Exhibitions for 2016: Georgia O'Keeffe & Paul Nash

Georgia O'Keeffe, Black Mesa Landscape, 1930, copyright O'Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe, NM
I was excited to discover that two of my favourite artists are being given major shows by Tate next year (2016). A hundred years after her first New York exhibition, Tate Modern will be devoting the summer months to Georgia O'Keeffe, one of the most distinctive painters of 20th century America. According to the Tate website:

The exhibition is the first important solo institutional exhibition of the artist’s work in the UK for a generation. This ambitious and wide-ranging overview will review O’Keeffe’s work in depth and reassess her place in the canon of twentieth-century art, situating her within artistic circles of her own generation and indicating her influence on artists of subsequent generations.

Judging by the rest of this introduction it looks as though we'll be getting a good selection of flower paintings and desert scenes, with art historical commentary designed to make an artist who had little time for 'gendering' and so on seem relevant. From the gorgeous watercolours she made while working as a teacher in Canyon, Texas, to the crosses and bones of her decades in New Mexico, O'Keeffe showed a marvellous sense of colour and design, and a powerful feeling for places and objects. If you want context, I'd recommend a trip to Abiquiu, New Mexico. Beyond the village and the valley of the Rio Chama there's nothing but desert, mountains and sky; these were her subjects.

Actually O'Keeffe had a lot in common with Paul Nash, the subject of an epic Tate Britain show next autumn, although he was gregarious and she solitary. Both were fascinated by out-of-the-way places, interesting architecture and objects that were charged with possible meaning. Both were mavericks, artists of unique personal vision, and neither enjoyed the labels others obliged them to wear.

On the other hand I think Nash would have enjoyed the open-endedness of 21st century contemporary art. When inspired by a new discovery - a dead tree, for instance - he would look at it from every possible angle, sometimes using watercolour, oil paint, photography, collage, assemblage and the written word to investigate a phenomenon that seemed to him vitally significant. Like Joseph Beuys, his motivations were intensely personal; had he been born half a century later he would have made a fantastic conceptual artist.

David Fraser Jenkins' dazzling Nash exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery took us deeper into the strange workings of this artist's mind than any previous book or exhibition. It will be a hard act to follow, but it sounds as though Tate Britain will be putting on quite a show.

Having written 'Paul Nash in Pictures: Landscape and Dream' for the Mainstone Press in 2011, I have my own take on Nash, which emphasizes his family life and personal experiences, his humour and his sense of place. My lecture, 'Paul Nash: A Life in Pictures', offers a jargon-free and (I hope) entertaining introduction to the artist.

I've also started lecturing on O'Keeffe recently, and am booked to give my talk, 'Georgia O'Keeffe in New Mexico' to a number of NADFAS groups next year. The lecture is based partly on my own experience of the state, which I first visited almost twenty years ago, and I hope it leaves people with an impression of O'Keeffe as a bold explorer of canyon and mesa, and a visionary artist.

There's more information on my lectures here, while both exhibitions are previewed on the Tate website.