Thursday, 29 December 2011

'Great Expectations' & 'Ravilious in Pictures: A Travelling Artist'

The Greatest 'Great Expectations'? David Lean's 1946 film
Watching 'Great Expectations' the other night I was reminded how important a sense of place can be. Pip and Magwitch are both creatures of the marsh, the lowest of the low. No wonder Pip's sister goes on in typically Dickensian fashion about being 'raised up' - out of the swamp and into society.

It's easy to take the places chosen by artists, writers and film makers for granted. We think of them as settings - a backdrop to the action - yet a place is often integral to the story. Charles Dickens understood perfectly that a place - whether a marshy seashore or a tenement building - can hold tremendous power. Victorian London was a thriving modern city, yet we remember the corners Dickens made into fiction, drawing out the emotion attached to old, picturesque or terrifying streets. Much of his London was composed of relics of the previous century, the city that was rapidly disappearing as the one we know grew up.

David Hockney, Looking at Woldgate Woods, 2006
Some writers and artists focus on places they know intimately. Thomas Hardy reimagined his native Dorset, Stanley Spencer the country around Cookham. Can we envisage the work of either separate from the location? And what about the Brontes? Or John Constable? Having abandoned dowdy Britain for the bright colours of California, David Hockney has returned home, West Coast palette in hand, and found new inspiration in familiar scenes.

Dickens was rather different. He went in search of places and scenes that came with emotional resonance or topicality built in, and in books like 'Hard Times' he borrowed heavily from the dramatic newspaper reports of the day. It's interesting to compare his lifelong quest for captivating places to that of JMW Turner, an artist who travelled widely to find subject matter that captured the violent changes wrought by the steam age.

JMW Turner, Snow Storm - Steam-boat off a Harbour Mouth, 1842, Tate
Curiously, the painters who followed him didn't seem so keen on the subject of place; think of the Pre-Raphaelites with their studied figures. While the work begun by Constable and Turner was taken on by painters across the Channel, it took a new century and the upheaval of the Great War to drive British artists out of their studios on a mass exploration of coast and landscape. After the mechanized brutality of the Western Front there was an understandable desire to 'get back to nature', and at the same time the production of cars and buses by factories that had previously made armaments enabled people to visit ancient sites, historic villages and beauty spots.

Paul Nash, Sudden Storm, 1918 (print from watercolour)
Painters turned their attention to places with an enthusiasm not seen since the early 19th century. Paul Nash set the tone, putting watercolour to use as a medium of modernity and teaching his students at the Royal College of Art to do the same. Among these were Edward Bawden and Eric Ravilious, both of whom took to the medium of John Sell Cotman and Francis Towne with great success - Ravilious never got on with oil paint, which he likened to toothpaste.

In his watercolours, Ravilious focused almost exclusively on place, with figures appearing sometimes as part of the scene, and his career progressed he went further and further in search of inspiration. This quest for new subject matter took him around Britain and into northern France, and it forms the basis of 'Ravilious in Pictures: A Travelling Artist', the fourth volume in the series published by the Mainstone Press. There are some glorious paintings in the book, from pictures of Rye Harbour and Newhaven to watercolours of Capel-y-Ffin and the Welsh hills, and some wonderful stories.

Eric Ravilious, Rye Harbour, 1938 - note Dickensian mudbank
An enthusiastic and accomplished letter writer, Ravilious left brilliant and often hilarious descriptions of the places he visited and people he met, without revealing exactly what he was looking for when he went out to paint, or analysing his work. This fourth book has been particularly fun to research and write, and as it goes into production I'll post the odd excerpt and some more descriptions of my own travels, following this genial ghost around the countryside...

'Ravilious in Pictures: A Travelling Artist' will be published by the Mainstone Press in late Feb 2012.

Friday, 16 December 2011

St Jude's Random Spectacular

St Jude's Random Spectacular, Issue 1
 The brand new journal from St Jude's is spectacular but far from random. Yes, it is eclectic, but with illustration by Mark Hearld, Emily Sutton, Angie Lewin, Jonny Hannah and other artists from the St Jude's stable it is a rather wonderful exposition of the Lewin house style. Open at random and you're transported to the world of energetic natural forms, retro typefaces and exquisite patterns that have made St Jude's so successful.

The cover could have been conjured up by Bawden or Ravilious for a 1930s book jacket. Seeing it made me wonder why it's taken so long for this rediscovery of all things mid-20th century to happen. It's a necessary and long overdue riposte to self-congratulatory conceptual art, computer-generated illustration and the kind of mind-numbing mass production that makes a Habitat mug look like a work of art.

Elisabeth Frink, Wolf & Crane 1968
You can see the influence of lots of artists at work. Last summer I walked into a room of lithographs by Elizabeth Frink and my immediate thought was 'how contemporary!'. In fact these characterful studies of birds and mammals were made in the 1960s, but the style - that sense of nature living and in motion - has echoes in the work of artists like Mark Hearld.

When I look at Emily Sutton's paintings of shop fronts I can't help but be reminded of 'High Street': the cafe shown in 'Random Spectacular' has the strange luminosity, stripped-down colours and exquisite lines of a Ravilious shop, but in the picture of a hat emporium on the opposite page Sutton has come up with a composition that is both tightly controlled and loose enough to let in some human warmth.

Angie Lewin, The 1953 Coronation Mug
Ravilious haunts Angie Lewin's work too - as she admits freely in her lovely book, 'Plants and Places'. By chance I was looking through it yesterday, and there's something fascinating about the way she works Rav's coronation mugs into some of her compositions. Her interpretation of his designs, with the lettering spilling off the mug into the 'world' of her print, suggests how influence works: you start with images made by another artist you love, build on them, and take off on your own...

The journal itself suggests old publications like 'The Saturday Book' - there are some nice examples here - with articles and photos relating to nature and the countryside. I love the way these cycles go: Ravilious and his generation adored Edward Thomas, Richard Jefferies and - above all - Gilbert White, whose 'Natural History of Selborne' was reissued numerous times during the 1930s. Ravilious was cock-a-hoop to be asked to illustrate one of these editions; perhaps the artists gathered together so thoughtfully by St Jude's could collaborate on a new edition. Now that would be a spectacle.

Gilbert White of Selborne, Nonesuch ed (from Bow Windows Bookshop)

By the way, there are only 750 copies of 'Random Spectacular', issue one. It isn't very expensive, and proceeds go to charity. Get yours here.

Monday, 12 December 2011

The Art of America - O'Keeffe & New Mexico

Georgia O'Keeffe, Black Cross NM, 1929
Inscrutable behind mirror shades, the art critic drives north along the wide valley of the Rio Grande, following the highway between dry mountain ranges. Signs invite him to play at a casino or buy cheap Indian gas, but he drives on towards distant olive-green mountains, named the Sangre de Cristos for the blood-red colour of the New Mexican sunset.

If it's summer the mountains, as he approaches, will be topped by a towering thunderhead - or an anvil of smoke from a mile-square forest fire. Winter snow usually covers the mountains from Christmas onwards, and on occasions the high plains are white too. Mostly, though, reddish-brown and ochre are the dominant colours, along with the muted greens of pinon, chamisa and sage - and dazzling blue sky.

Northern New Mexico (heading south from Colorado)
The highway approaches the foothills and into view comes La Villa Real de la Santa Fé de San Francisco de Asís ('The Royal Town of the Holy Faith of St. Francis of Assisi'), or Santa Fe as it has been known for most of its 400 years. Today the city sprawls outward from the hills across the plain, with vast subdivisions spreading miles in every direction. A British city of a similar population (67,000) would be far smaller, but that's the West for you; like the horizons, the houses, yards and vehicles are wide.

Taos Pueblo
Our critic has a choice here: he can carry on up the Rio Grande, through Espanola, to visit Georgia O'Keeffe's old place above Abiquiu or head up into the mountains to Taos. Alternatively he can stop in Santa Fe itself. Whichever he chooses, he will find himself in an America different from either the sophisticated liberal-minded coastal cities or the republican-minded, God-fearing walmart country that stretches from sea to shining sea. Though a religious land, this is not the Bible Belt; Northern New Mexico is Catholic not Baptist. It is also one of the few places in the country where Native Americans, the descendants of 17th century Spanish Conquistadors and more recent arrivals from the east coast manage to live side by side - not always without animosity, it has to be said, but without destroying each other.

Ernest L Blumenschein, Haystack, Taos Valley, 1927
If we were on TV we might see as a historical introduction the cave-dwellings of the Anasazi, ancestors of today's Pueblo Indian tribes, followed by drawings of Conquistadors trudging north from Mexico in search of El Dorado (seeking gold, they found subsistence farmers growing beans and corn),  and then some pictures of wagon trains heading west on the Old Santa Fe Trail. Billy the Kid might feature, and Chisum, and Geronimo. And the railroad... This is the West, a place of mingled cultures and ancient grudges and a region where people can leave their past selves behind and begin anew.

John Sloan, Road to Santa Fe, 1924
Take the road from Santa Fe to Abiquiu and see how many dirt roads head off into the hills. People live out there, off-grid, with a pick-up truck, a generator, a well and a gun. There are communes and cult centres, and artists living in trailers that they have extended, reroofed, rendered...

Artists came first to Taos, attracted by the extraordinary architecture of Taos Pueblo and the colourful culture of its inhabitants, as well as by the radiant light of Northern New Mexico. According to legend the painters Ernest Blumenschein and Bert Phillips were travelling from Denver to Mexico in the summer of 1898, when a wheel broke on their carriage. As luck would have it they were only a few miles from Taos, and that's where they went for help. They went no further.

Storm brewing over Northern NM
By the time New Mexico became a state in 1912, it already had a reputation as an enchanted region, a reputation exploited by advertisers of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad. The journey from Chicago or New York was hard but not impossible, and in the years after World War I artists came in ever-increasing numbers to Santa Fe. Some came to recover from tuberculosis in the dry climate; some came for the light; some came to paint (and give political support to) the Indians; some found in the strange geology and landscape ideal material for Modernist techniques.

John Sloan and Randall Davey were among the first to set up summer homes in the town, and you can still visit Davey's house (which is owned by the Audubon Society) and its beautiful mountain orchard. The paintings they exhibited (successfully) in New York encouraged others to visit New Mexico: Marsden Hartley and Arthur Dove, John Marin and Andrew Dasburg. Some stayed in Santa Fe permanently, enduring the cold, hard winters when there were no tourists to buy pictures and virtually no other way to earn a living.

Georgia O'Keeffe, Pedernal from the Ranch, 1956

Of these the best-known were the Cinco Pintores, a loosely-affiliated group who established a colony on Camino del Monte Sol, just below the TB hospital. Known as 'the five little nuts in the five adobe huts', Jozef Bakos, Fremont Ellis, Walter Mruk, Willard Nash and Will Shuster made the colony self-sustaining and permanent, with the glorious Museum of Fine Arts giving them a place to show (and sell) work.

Pedernal, nr Abiquiu NM - O'Keeffe Country
Moving to Taos in 1919, the socialite Mabel Dodge Luhan did her bit to encourage artists and writers to visit New Mexico. Willa Cather and photographer Ansel Adams were among her celebrity guests, but her most enduring literary friendship was with DH Lawrence, who set up home at a ranch nearby (also open to the public).

In May 1929 Georgia O'Keeffe visited New Mexico for the first time, and was immediately taken in hand by Mabel Dodge, who lent her a studio and a base from which to explore the surrounding country. O'Keeffe was already famous, both for her flower paintings and as a doyenne of the New York art scene; her husband Alfred Stieglitz was a mover and a shaker who helped her become one of the most prominent and highly-paid artists of her time.

Georgia O'Keeffe, Rancho de Taos Church, 1934
But O'Keeffe needed new inspiration and in New Mexico she found it, immediately focusing on the church architecture, skulls and crosses that were to provide her with subject matter for decades. Moving permanently to Ghost Ranch, just above Abiquiu, in 1940, she spent forty years evolving into the tough, self-contained old woman who still haunts the region as a kind of desert seer. She lived so long (dying in 1986 at the age of 98) that she seemed as permanent as the mountains and desert she loved, and in Santa Fe everyone over a certain age has a story that begins, 'Did I ever tell you about the time I met Georgia... ?'

Acequia Madre, Santa Fe, NM
I also remember people telling me that the artist didn't like Santa Fe, a not uncommon feeling among people who come to New Mexico for the isolation of the desert rather than the restaurants and galleries of the capital. Nevertheless, the city has adopted her as its own, with the O'Keeffe Museum adding to the already numerous tourist attractions it has to offer. Chief among these is (to my mind) the fact that old Santa Fe is a beautiful town of adobe houses set in quiet tree-lined streets; you can walk from the Plaza to the mountains (providing you're fairly fit), and enjoy the huge clear skies of the state that calls itself (without a shred of irony, and ignoring the shocking divide between rich and poor) the Land of Enchantment.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

BBC4: The Art of America - parts 2 & 3

Jeff Koons, Puppy, 1992 (at Bilbao) - isn't he cute?!
More great telly from Andrew Graham-Dixon, who must have had a blast barreling along the Nevada and California highways in his convertible. Having managed to keep a straight face for most of the first two parts, he finally broke down in the third, when he was shown standing on the hilltop above the Hollywood sign, chuckling at the hilarity of it all. Here he was, an art critic known for his subtle, serious, passionate analysis of paintings, in Tinseltown!

There was an irony here, one of several that added a fascinating undercurrent to the show. If there is an Art of America it probably isn't the painted canvas but the motion picture, yet Hollywood was presented as one of the more amusing components of the incomprehensible, unserious sprawl of Los Angeles - a city in which (as AGD rightly pointed out) the buildings themselves are works of art. They are also, he might have added, covered in art, as LA's vast expanses of cement have attracted mural painters for decades.

Edward Hopper, Night Hawks, 1942
But what was the man supposed to do? Given three hours and whatever budget the cash-strapped BBC has for this sort of programming, he set himself the task of weaving the story of American art into the broader history of a huge, diverse country.

In general he proved adept at combining the broad sweep - The Depression, The Sixties - with detailed examination of particular artworks. I was absolutely gripped by his discussion of 'White Flag', Jasper Johns' painting of 1955, which was nicely set in the context of the McCarthy Era. Similarly, his detailed examination of Edward Hopper's legendary 'Night Hawks' allowed us to contemplate the picture as we might in a gallery, with an intelligent guide. We were introduced to Norman Rockwell, one of the most genuinely popular American painters of the last century, and given new insight into the political pressures that influenced the way he painted African-Americans.

Jasper Johns, White Flag, 1955
Most of the greats had their moment in the spotlight: Rothko & Pollock, Johns & Warhol. Factory acolyte Billy Name had an entertaining walk-on part, sporting a marvellous ZZ Top beard. Curious that in AGD's anxiety-ridden, urban America, most of his interviewees lived in leafy suburbia!

Inevitably, given the scale of the operation, there were artists who perhaps should have been included but weren't. Having spent a lot of time in New Mexico, I was hoping for a glimpse of Georgia O'Keeffe, who was both brilliantly original AND popular. The lack of any detailed examination of her work was part of a wider problem: although the series talked a lot about the diversity of American culture, the artists featured were not especially diverse. With the odd exception (eg Nan Goldin), most were white men. Was the Harlem Renaissance discussed (I would double-check but Part 2 no longer available)? Were we introduced to Jackson Pollock's wife, the talented Lee Krasner? Did we see work by Dorothea Lange or Diane Arbus?

Andy Warhol - anyone for soup?
I was reminded of the brilliantly eccentric BBC4 series 'British Masters', which featured (if I remember correctly) no women artists at all. I'm not waving the flag of political correctness, just noting an anomaly.

Anyway, we at least had the treat of Mr Graham-Dixon interviewing one of my favourite artistic mavericks, Jeff Koons. I was a big fan of the King of Kitsch back when his giant floral Westie seemed a wonderful riposte to the solemnity of the Josef Beuys school. Like Ed Burra, Koons is a very dangerous artist to take seriously and AGD was wonderfully circumspect, allowing Koons to chirp cheerfully about the knick-knacks and mass-produced pictures of his childhood while a gang of workers put the finishing touches to a series of massive paintings.

Georgia on my mind...
Ever articulate, Koons talked winningly about 'acceptance': it's OK, he said, to love the ornaments of your childhood; it's OK to adore Michael & Bubbles; making love with Ilona Staller is OK too - though he must look at those pictures of his younger self enjoying intercourse with the legendary Italian porn star & MP (who was his wife at the time), and wonder what on earth he'd been thinking...

A curious journey then, from the first drawings of Native Americans to billboard-sized paintings of inflatable dolphins. Great fun to watch, and extremely informative, although I would add a proviso: this was (for the most part) liberal, secular, urban America - intellectual, doubting & ironic. Much of the country is, by contrast, conservative and devout; while the sculptor at the end was busy making a clever piece depicting man's evolution, untold numbers of schoolchildren are being taught Creationism - not as religious doctrine but as science.

Monday, 5 December 2011

BBC4: The Art of America

Flying fish illustrated by John White, 1580s (British Museum)
Having successfully missed the whole of the recent BBC4 series 'Art of America', I've been catching up on the iplayer (without which I'd probably never see anything). As I write this you have about nine hours in which to watch the first episode, and I would strongly recommend dropping everything and putting it on right now...

Critics have already made the point, but Andrew Graham Dixon is that great rarity: an art historian who makes wonderful TV programmes in which he displays both passion and balance. He is articulate and neither glib nor condescending. Yes, he can be a bit serious (as he was when talking about the delightfully flippant and unserious Edward Burra) but he demonstrates clearly and with a minimum of posturing that Art Matters.

So far I've managed to watch the first two parts of 'Art of America', and the opening programme is a gem. In fact the opening of the opening programme is fantastic in its own right, as AGD introduces artist and map-maker John White, who travelled with a pioneering expedition to (what is now) North Carolina in 1585 and later became governor of the ill-fated colony of Roanoke Island; on the first expedition he painted watercolours of the Native American people they met, and these survive today as a unique record of a long-vanished society.

John White, A Cheife Herowan's Wyfe, 1580s (BM)
If there are two broad views of American history - the March of Progress vs the Devastation of a Continent - then it is clear which side this presenter takes. Believers in Manifest Destiny may prefer to watch with the sound off, but you can't really argue with the fact that North America changed dramatically in the centuries after Columbus, and not to the benefit of all. Those who know American history will not be surprised by much, although the archive film and photography is as excellent as it always seems to be in these BBC4 shows.

Audubon's Wild Turkey from 'Birds of America', 1827-38
At some points the art seems slightly unworthy of the colossal historical drama unfolding across the continent. The Americans had no Delacroix. But there are one or two moments of breathtaking beauty and of these surely the most memorable was when AGD helped a wonderful grey-haired archivist to lift the cover of John James Audubon's 'Birds of America'. I'm not sure how well people know this extraordinary book of bird paintings here in Britain, but in the USA you can find it all over the place, in numerous editions and on legions of prints and posters.

Audubon's Carolina Parakeet, now extinct
None of them, though, comes anywhere near this mighty 19th century edition - the double elephant folio. As a book it is almost preposterous, a volume so enormous that two people struggle to lift the cover... but those pictures: from the wild turkey on the first page (the original bird of America remembered every year at Thanksgiving) Audubon's birds live in a way that no stuffed bird in a box ever can. We learned that the third bird we saw - a parakeet - was driven to extinction by the farmer and the gun, prompting a discussion of 'the murderous white man' and his malign impact on natural America.

Fascinating stuff. I wonder what American viewers will make of this show if it appears on the other side of the Atlantic...

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Eric Ravilious & Paul Nash in Bristol

Eric Ravilious, Bristol Quay, 1938
Bristol has been a popular destination for the wandering artist since at least the 18th century, when the Avon Gorge began attracting painters who were looking for something Sublime (cliffs, ruins, etc), but didn't want to go dragging all over Wales looking for it. Since then the port city and its scenic surroundings have proved a fertile hunting ground for generations of artists, and today Bristol must boast one of the highest per capita population of creative types in the country.

JMW Turner, The Avon Gorge & Bristol Hotwell, 1792 (Bristol Museums & Art Gallery)
This was brought home forcibly to me when I went to the launch of Francis Greenacre's lovely book 'From Bristol to the Sea' (Redcliffe) - it must be more than five years ago now - at the Merchant's Hall in Clifton. The great and the good of the city were out in force, I remember, and quite rightly, as the book is a gem - a nicely-produced, readable survey that includes some lively watercolours by a 16 year old JMW Turner; he spent a family holiday perched on the cliffs with his sketchbook, pursuing his vision with typical dedication.


Francis Danby, St Vincents Rocks & The Avon Gorge, 1815 (private collection)

Bristol at the time was becoming something of a fashionable watering hole, on account of the allegedly health-giving waters of the Hotwells, so there was a market for scenes of the city and environs. John Sell Cotman painted an unusual, atmospheric watercolour of St Mary Redcliffe Church, while Thomas Girtin, Francis Danby and Samuel Jackson were among the many popular painters who worked here.

John Sell Cotman, St Mary Redcliffe, Bristol; Dawn, etching after 1802 w/c
Later in the 19th century the attention of artists turned from scenic views to shipping and industry. With its unique layout, the port of Bristol - the City Docks, rather than the port at Avonmouth - offered unusual perspectives that combined features of city life (church spires, shops, crowds) with ships and the activity surrounding them. This remained an attraction for artists into the 20th century. Edward Wadsworth was sent to Bristol during World War One to supervise the painting of ships with dazzle camouflage, and he then recommended the place to a younger artist friend, John Nash.

Nash visited in the 1920s and then returned in November 1938, bringing with him Eric Ravilious. Nash had been trying to get Rav to Bristol for a while, but what really persuaded his friend was the prospect of the paddlesteamers laid up in their winter berths. These lovely old boats, run by P&A Campbell around the Bristol Channel during the summer months, were exactly the kind of subject Ravilious enjoyed, and the pair spent days and, more often, nights sketching them. The resulting pictures give a fascinating insight into the way each artist worked, and I also like to imagine them sitting side by side on the docks with their easels, each intent on his version, perhaps pausing to share a nip of something against the cold.

John Nash, Britannia, 1938 (pic borrowed from Dru Marland)
There was a certain rivalry between the Nash brothers which may partly explain, I think, Paul's comparative lack of enthusiasm for Bristol. Or perhaps it was simply that he drew his inspiration less from cities and man-made things than from nature. Anyway, he did visit the city in March 1939, where he made one of his hastier sketches of the Clifton Suspension Bridge. This was included in 'The Giant's Stride' an article he wrote for the Architectural Review about Brunel's bridge and the legends surrounding the Avon Gorge.

Paul Nash, To the Memory of Brunel, 1939 (British Council)
'It had an unhappy air,' he wrote of the bridge, 'Like the dream of an ambitious mind, never quite realised. What dream was walled up in this impressive travesty? ... Strange forces had been at work in the Avon Gorge, I felt convinced, not those alone of honest engineering.'

More on all of this, and on the fascinating relationship between Ravilious and the Nash brothers, in my talk at Foyles on Tuesday 6th December - yes, that's THIS TUESDAY, 6.15pm!