Letters from Iceland by W.H. Auden and Louis MacNeice (1936)

A golden age of travel writing

We’ve spoken about the 1930s as the Age of Auden, dominated by the left-wing politics of most of the young writers and poets, who were responding to the Great Depression (1929-33) and then stricken by the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War (1936-39).

But it was also a golden age of travel writing. Posh Brits could wave their distinctive British passport and travel anywhere they wanted in what was, between the wars, the largest empire the world had ever seen, at its largest extent. There was a boom in high-end travel writing to cater for the well-heeled tourists who could travel in the new passenger planes or enjoy the new leisure concept of luxury cruises.

Almost by definition, though, the really adventurous types wanted to go beyond the usual itineraries and explore unknown parts. It’s no coincidence that they were buoyed up by the confidence of having gone to a jolly good public school, having networks of contacts and connections everywhere, and so knowing they could probably get themselves out of most scrapes with a quick phone call to cousin Algy at the Foreign Office.

Hence the ripping travel adventures of Peter Fleming (Eton and Oxford) in Brazil, Russia and China, or Robert Byron (Eton and Oxford) in Russia, China, Afghanistan and Tiber, or Patrick ‘Paddy’ Leigh Fermor (King’s School Canterbury) who, aged 18, decided to walk from London to Constantinople.

Hence the journeys Graham Greene (Berkhamsted and Oxford) undertook to Liberia and Mexico, or Evelyn Waugh (Lancing and Oxford)’s jolly journeys to Abyssinia, the Belgian Congo and British Guiana.

(Peter Fleming is actually name-checked twice in this book as the intimidating ideal of the modern travel writer who the authors are haplessly trying to live up to, p.159)

Taking the mickey

In the spring of 1936 a chance conversation with one of his former pupils at the private school where he’d taught in the early 30s revealed that he and friends and a teacher were going to Iceland that summer. Auden was instantly excited at the prospect and suggested to his publishers, Faber & Faber, that they fund him to go there and he’d write a travel book for them. Auden leapt at the chance of going to one of his childhood holy places. His family had Nordic ancestry, his father had read him all the Norse myths, and as a boy he had read lots of Icelandic sagas with their stern unforgiving heroes.

So he made his arrangements – to go by himself for a month or so, then rendezvous with the party of former schoolboys, and he persuaded one of the gang, the Ulsterman Louis MacNeice, to also make the sea voyage and meet him there. So in June 1936 he set off, and spent a little over a month travelling round Iceland, mainly by local bus with jaunts on horseback thrown in, hiring local guides and staying at whatever accommodation existed, often local farmers.

He’d been in the country for some time, fretting about how he was going to write something to repay his publishers’ advance, when he suddenly had the bright idea of making the entire book a collection of letters, letters to friends, containing appropriate content for them (‘so that each letter deals with its subject in a different and significant way’, p.140) – sending some friends straight travelogue, some jokes, some a selection of historic writing about the place, and so on.

And once MacNeice arrived (they rendezvoused in Rejkyavik on 9 August 1936), they developed the idea of poetic letters and of deliberately experimenting with different types of poetic genre (lyric, epic, eclogue etc). Once the third element, the four schoolboys and their master arrived, the party set off for a riding tour of Iceland’s central mountain range, and MacNeice had the idea of describing their rather bizarre party (two scruffy poets, a bespectacled teacher and four keen young boys) into a satirical diary of the trip as if written from one jolly upper-class girl guides leader to another (Hetty to Nancy), complaining about the bullying leader of the trip, and the other teachers and the girls, my dear, the girls! This is either very funny or revoltingly cliquey, according to taste.

Thus the idea evolved to make the book deliberately bitty and fragmented, a collage of different types of text, an anti-heroic travel book, in that it wouldn’t hold back on the realities of the trip i.e. runny noses, smelly barns, recalcitrant ponies and so on.

The original mish-mash effect was enhanced by the authors’s photos which were deliberately amateurish and scrappy, as Auden gleefully points out:

Every exciting letter has enclosures,
And so shall this – a bunch of photographs,
Some out of focus, some with wrong exposures,
Press cuttings, gossip, maps, statistics, graphs;
I don’t intend to do the thing by halves.
I’m going to be very up to date indeed.
It is a collage that you’re going to read.

There’s even a passage where Auden gives us his thoughts on photography, namely that it’s the most democratic art form, specially given all the technical advances of his day (what would he have thought of today’s camera-phones?) (p.139). Alas the authors’ photos aren’t reproduced in the rather cheap-feeling modern Faber paperback version, though you can glimpse them online.

The Letters from Iceland format allowed them to get away from the pompous smoothness of traditional travel writers, although it did tend to add fuel to the fire of the large number of critics who accused the Auden Gang of being a self-satisfied clique of insiders. This is particularly obvious in the Last Will and Testament with its references to their chums:

Next Edward Upward and Christopher Isherwood
I here appoint my joint executors
To judge my work if it be bad or good…

To our two distinguished colleagues in confidence,
To Stephen Spender and Cecil Day Lewis, we assign
Our minor talents to assist in the defence

Of the European Tradition and to carry on
The Human heritage.

For my friend Benjamin Britten, composer, I beg
That fortune send him soon a passionate affair.

Item – I leave my old friend Anthony Blunt
A copy of Marx and £1000 a year
And the picture of Love Locked Out by Holman Hunt.

Too chummy by half, it’s the one part of the book I didn’t like (and not just for this reason; it’s also just boring).

The most impressive letter, and binding the book together, are the five parts of a long poem by Auden titled Letter to Lord Byron. Again he explains his through processes in the text itself, telling us that he’d taken a copy of Byron’s immensely long rambling verse diary of his life, Don Juan, and had the inspiration of writing an updated version for his times. He liked Byron’s free and easy style, his ability to incorporate everything from thoughts about the meaning of life to the fact that he had a hangover that morning. He liked him because he was a townee i.e. urban, and heartily agreed with Byron’s dislike of the Wordsworth, nature-worshipping tradition which Auden cordially detested.

Part one of Letter to Lord Byron is the first thing you read and immediately establishes the chatty, witty tone of the book, starting by apologising to the shade of Lord Byron for bothering him.

Excuse, my lord, the liberty I take
In thus addressing you. I know that you
Will pay the price of authorship and make
The allowances an author has to do.
A poet’s fan-mail will be nothing new.
And then a lord – Good Lord, you must be peppered,
Like Gary Cooper, Coughlin, or Dick Sheppard,

With notes from perfect strangers starting, ‘Sir,
I liked your lyrics, but Childe Harold’s trash,’
‘My daughter writes, should I encourage her?’
Sometimes containing frank demands for cash,
Sometimes sly hints at a platonic pash,
And sometimes, though I think this rather crude,
The correspondent’s photo in the nude.

Light verse is difficult to bring off, but to sustain it over the 160 stanzas of the finished Letter To Lord Byron is a quite staggering achievement. Has anyone else in the entire twentieth century brought off such a sustained comic achievement in verse?

Besides this epic achievement, the book also contains quite a few other poems by Auden, including:

  • Journey to Iceland
  • a poetic letter to Richard Crossman (b.1907: head boy at Winchester then New College Oxford, went onto become a Labour MP and then cabinet member)
  • Detective Story – a sort of verse explanation of why we like and read thrillers
  • ‘O who can ever praise enough’ – a verse meditation on childhood books (note the characteristic us of ‘O’ starting a poem, a really characteristic Auden tic)
  • a free-verse letter to William Coldstream (painted, born 1908: private school, Slade Art School, met Auden at the GPO when they were making documentary films)
  • and a collaboration with MacNeice, ‘W. H. Auden and Louis MacNeice: Their Last Will and Testament’

MacNeice’s contributions include:

  • a verse letter to Graham and Anne Shepard
  • an Eclogue from Iceland which contains lines describing the bitter enmities of MacNeice’s native Ireland and why he has fled them, along with speeches by Grettir which capture the spirit of the saga hero, bloody-minded and doomed, and who tells the poets that their task is ‘the assertion of human values’ (p.134)
  • a verse Epilogue

In between all this poetry there are chunks of prose, namely:

  • a prose section ‘For Tourists’, which is quite thorough and might actually have been useful to contemporary tourists
  • a sardonic selection of writings on Iceland by other authors, ‘Sheaves from Sagaland’, addressed to John Betjeman, chosen for their odd surrealist details, the best of which is a page-long description of a huge feast endured by one William Jackson Hooker in 1809, and an eye-witness account of the eruption of an Icelandic volcano in 1727 (incidentally, we learn that the title Letters From Iceland had already been used by Joseph Banks in 1772)
  • Saga Laws, the Formula of Peacemaking, the Law of the Wager of Battle, the Viking Law
  • two prose letters from Auden to ‘E. M. Auden’ (E.M. was Erika Mann: it needs to be explained that Auden – who was gay – agreed to a marriage of convenience with Erika Mann who was the eldest daughter of novelist Thomas Mann, cabaret actress and racing driver, in order to give her a nationality when the Nazis cancelled her German nationalist because of her writings against them: they were married on 15 June 1935, the only time they ever met) – these are some of the most chatty and candid pieces Auden ever wrote, joking about the appalling food but explaining some of the Icelandic verse forms, his dislike of modern art, his fondness for caricatures
  • a prose letter to Kristian Andreirsson, Esq.;

The longest single section is a series of supposed letters sent by the fictional ‘Hetty’ to her friend ‘Nancy’. These were written by MacNeice in a lampoon of contemporary posh girls’ fiction, wherein Hetty moans endlessly about the jolly hockeysticks enthusiasm of the leader of the exhibition, Miss Greenhalge, and her tent-mate, the insufferable Maisie (a girl guide version of Auden) and makes campy comments:

The road to Kleppur suffers from ribbon development and nothing, my dear, can look worse than a corrugated iron suburb if it is not kept tidy.

Letters from Iceland is still hugely enjoyable after all these years, mainly because of the infectious good humour of both the protagonists. The advice for travellers is actually useful, albeit 84 years out of date. Auden says he paid 10 kroner for three days board and lodging and hire of horse at a farm in the north-west, but elsewhere tells us the exchange rate is 24 kroner to the pound sterling. So… did he get all that for 50p! Hiring a horse for the day costs 3 kroner i.e. 12.5p!

Last time I looked at a holiday in Iceland it was ruinously expensive, and packed with pre-arranged tours and photo opportunities by gushing geysers or bathing in hot springs i.e. it has been totally commodified.

There is a diagram of the highest mountains (we learn later that Auden pinched this postcard from an old lady who ran a home for decayed ladies, p.145); an extract from an 1805 parish register; bibliographies and suggested reading; there is a map showing new roads.

MacNeice struggles manfully to keep up with Auden’s super-abundant light verse:

So I came here to the land the Romans missed,
Left for the Irish saint and the Viking colonist.
But what am I doing here? Qu’allais-je faire
Among these volcanic rocks and this grey air?
Why go north when Cyprus and Madeira
De jure if not de facto are much nearer?
The reason for hereness is beyond conjecture,
There are no trees or trains or architecture
Fruits and greens are insufficient for health
And culture is limited by lack of wealth,
The tourist sights have nothing like stonehenge,
The literature is all about revenge.

(from Letter to Graham and Anne Shepard by Louis MacNeice)

10 out of 10 for effort, with some impressive hits:

The tourist sights have nothing like stonehenge,
The literature is all about revenge.

but Macneice can’t fully mask his more thoughtful approach which tends to make for slower reading, a slight air of puzzlement: it is Auden’s poetry which overshadows the enterprise, The Letter To Lord Byron whose five parts tie the ragbag together, but also the short but wonderful Journey to Iceland, which captures in just eleven stanzas the appeal of the cold and bleak north to some of us, so unlike the lotus-eating lure of the sunny Mediterranean where most travellers went.

And the traveller hopes: ‘Let me be far from any
Physician’; and the ports have names for the sea;
The citiless, the corroding, the sorrow;
And North means to all: ‘Reject’.

And the great plains are for ever where cold creatures are hunted,
And everywhere; the light birds flicker and flaunt;
Under a scolding flag the lover
Of islands may see at last,

Faintly, his limited hope; as he nears the glitter
Of glaciers; the sterile immature mountains intense
In the abnormal day of this world, and a river’s
Fan-like polyp of sand.

Wow! If you read my post about the monotonous diction of the poetry inspired by the Spanish Civil War, you can immediately see in these lines the use of novel vocabulary and uncannily imaginative phrasing.

In traditional poetry, birds do not ‘flicker and flaunt’; why are the mountains ‘immature’? why is the day ‘abnormal’? I don’t know, but it seems strange and true, the result of a disconcerted perception, appropriate to the cold and the bleak. And the simple statement that the bare North means to all Reject I find breath-taking.

In the short Foreword he added in 1965 Auden says:

The three months in Iceland upon which it is based stand out in my memory as among the happiest in a life which has, so far, been unusually happy, and, if something of this joy comes through the writing, I shall be content.

It does. It is a wonderful, funny, civilised book.

A few themes

In the pell-mell of poetry and comic prose it’s easy to overlook a couple of themes which emerge:

1. The He-man The concept of the ‘he-man’ was relatively new in pop culture – the muscley, Mr Universe types which came, like so much marketing bs, from America. Because they went to jolly good public schools and went on to have jolly successful careers, it’s easy to overlook how anxious these young men were, particularly about their masculinity.

Peter Fleming is referenced because he had already made a name for himself with his heroic account of his travels in Asia and his newspaper reporting for The Times, whereas Auden is all too well aware that he is short-sighted, he easily gets colds, he likes his creature comforts, and the first time he tries to mount a pony he galls right over its neck and onto the ground, in front of a party of picnickers. He is not made of heroic stuff.

The Auden Gang were, at the end of the day, bookish intellectuals, more at home chatting about Dante than building fires. They’d despised all that Officer Training Corps stuff they’d been forced to do at school and now found themselves having to take it seriously.

It can’t have helped that lots of them were gay or bisexual and so felt doubly alienated from the tough-guy, heterosexual men they saw up on cinema screens, always getting the girl. This helps explain why they couldn’t get over a permanent sense of feeling ridiculous. And then feeling anxious about feeling anxious.

It’s a small by symptomatic moment when Auden finally gets the hang of horse-riding and manages to stay on quite a frisky horse he’s been rented. ‘I was a real he-man after all,’ he says (p.142).

He says it as a joke, but it reveals an anxiety and a theme which crops up throughout his poetry of the 30s, another way in which he captured the anxiety of a generation.

(Similarly, when Auden and Isherwood travelled to China in 1938, Isherwood can’t sleep in a hotel near recently bombed ruins while he listens to Auden snoring ‘the long, calm snores of the truly strong’ – Journey To A War, p.75. The ‘truly strong’. It’s a joke, but still…)

2. Sensitivity Auden writes that traditional travel books are often boring but that there is a different thread to the genre, which consists more of essays on life prompted by things the traveller has seen. For him this is epitomised by the travel writing of D.H. Lawrence or Aldous Huxley, a style, writes Auden, which he is ‘neither clever nor sensitive enough to manage’ (p.140).

Now he’s being disingenuous when he says he’s not clever enough, he was a very clever man and he knew it. But I think he is being honest when he says that he was not sensitive enough. Sensitivity is not a word you associate with Auden. Cold, clinical detachment is his mode. He likes to categorise, he loves reeling off lists of things, from industrial equipment to types of civilian, from literary genres to psychoanalytical symptoms.

Thus it was Byron’s detached, urban and civilised irony which appealed to him, and when he deprecates Wordsworth he’s not joking.

I’m also glad to find I’ve your authority
For finding Wordsworth a most bleak old bore,
Though I’m afraid we’re in a sad minority
For every year his followers get more,
Their number must have doubled since the war.
They come in train-loads to the Lakes, and swarms
Of pupil-teachers study him in Storm’s.

For, oddly enough, although he spent three months travelling round one of Europe’s most unique landscapes, Auden doesn’t like landscapes. He likes people. He likes people and their cultures and ideas and attitudes and minds and histories and cultures. For him the landscape is just a backdrop to all this much more interesting stuff.

To me Art’s subject is the human clay,
And landscape but a background to a torso;
All Cézanne’s apples I would give away
For one small Goya or a Daumier.

It may be worth pointing out that Honoré Daumier (1808-79) was a French artists and printmaker most famous for his caricatures of urban life. The Royal Academy had an exhibition on him not so long ago:

Several other anecdotes reinforce your sense that the human subject came first, second and third with Auden. On a trivial level, he quotes a well-known clerihew in a letter to a friend he’s made on the island, to clarify his position:

The art of Biography
Is different from Geography.
Geography is about maps,
But Biography is about chaps.

Or take a longer anecdote: After quite a gruelling bus journey (Icelanders always seemed to be sick on bus journeys, Auden was told by a bus driver) he arrives at Akureyri to discover all the hotels are full. Fortunately, the young guide he’s travelling with, Ragnar, has a friend who has a brother-in-law who’s a butcher who happens to be out of town, so they’re put up at his house for the night. Next day Auden goes swimming at an open-air pool heated by geysers. So far, so touristy. But that evening, he tells us, he hunkers down for the night with two books.

Borrowed two volumes of caricatures, which are really my favourite kind of picture, and spent a very happy evening with Goya and Daumier and Max Beerbohm.

While others are trying to work themselves up into poetic visions worthy of Wordsworth, Auden doesn’t bother. He’s much more interesting in the sight of the driver of the bus struggling to change a tyre. In the evenings he doesn’t go out roistering like Ernest Hemingway, he much prefers to be snuggled up with books of entertaining cartoons. It’s very sweet and very honest.

I’ve learnt to ride, at least to ride a pony,
Taken a lot of healthy exercise,
On barren mountains and in valleys stony,
I’ve tasted a hot spring (a taste was wise),
And foods a man remembers till he dies.
All things considered, I consider Iceland,
Apart from Reykjavik, a very nice land.


Credit

Letters to Iceland by W.H. Auden and Louis MacNeice was first published by Faber and Faber in 1937. References are to the 1985 paperback edition.

Related links

1930s reviews

Reviews of Icelandic sagas

Bridget Riley @ Hayward Gallery

This is a major retrospective of the work of the celebrated British artist Bridget Riley (b.1931), covering 70 years of her career, and featuring over 200 works and 50 huge and wonderful paintings.

Movement in Squares by Bridget Riley (1961) Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London © Bridget Riley 2019. All rights reserved

  1. It is a big, bright, light, beautifully arranged exhibition for which they’ve removed walls and partitions to make the gallery space as open and light as possible
  2. What’s not to love? Riley’s paintings are large and joyful, life-affirming, wonderfully inventive and teasing and striking and bold and imaginative works

To shake it up, the exhibition is organised thematically rather than chronologically, in order to draw attention to the interests and themes that recur throughout her oeuvre, themes such as ‘Stripes and Diagonals’. ‘Curves’, ‘Black and White’.

An explorer

As you progress through you learn that Riley is a sort of inventor, or explorer, or analyst, of the effects of pattern and colour on the eye and mind.

This becomes clear in what is chronologically the beginning but has been arranged to be the ‘final’ section of the show (though you can wander round it in any order), and is titled Beginnings.

It includes a large selection of drawings right from the start of her career. Some go as far back as her secondary school, the phenomenally posh Cheltenham Ladies College which she attended after the war. Others are from her time at  Goldsmiths College (1949–52) and the Royal College of Art (1952–55).

What we see is a very gifted student doing scores of life studies, nudes, portraits, and some landscapes. She was a good drawer and is quoted as saying drawing remains central to her practice – ‘an enquiry, a way of finding out’. I was particularly captivated by this woman’s head, whose beady features reminded me of Daumier.

But the point of showing the early work is to bring home how she was fascinated by the impact of lines and shapes. There are landscapes with detail filled in, and next to them the same landscape but sketched only as parts of lines, leaving the eye to complete the design and also to fill in the volume. Looking at them you realise how she was restlessly investigating the impact of shapes, patterns and design.

Seurat

The post-impressionist painter Georges Seurat is so important to Riley’s art that he merits a section to himself. Seurat pioneered the use of pointillism i.e. reducing the entire painting to blobs or dabs of colour. The aim was to make the colours vibrate against each other and so to capture the effect of light.

But in doing so Seurat discovered that deploying colour like this – not in the long smooth strokes of traditional painting, but in dots placed next to each other – created a curiously dynamic and energetic image. Riley was early on fascinated by the use of contrasting colours, patterns and sapes to create a completely deceptive sense of volume and depth.

So much so that in 1959 Riley made her own, larger version of Seurat’s classic painting The Bridge at Courbevoie. The aim wasn’t to reproduce it but to get right under the skin of Seurat’s method and vision. She’s quoted as saying:

I believed – and in fact still believe – that looking carefully at paintings is the best training you can have as a young painter.

Copy of Le Pont de Courbevoie by Georges Seurat by Bridget Riley (1959) © Bridget Riley 2019

The subject matter isn’t really the pint for either painter. It was the way design and depth and volume and shape could all be created by arranging dots. What came next was a breakthrough.

Black and white

She threw out colour. She chose to concentrate on black and white alone, in order to focus on the perceptual potential of the work – in order to explore the nuts and bolts, the bare bones of perception, to explore what goes on when we look at an image. And the results surprised even her.

Blaze 1 by Bridget Riley (1962) © Bridget Riley 2019

From 1961 to 1965 Riley worked only in black and white, exploring a wide range of visual effects, including many which create optical illusions of depth, of the picture plane folding away from the viewer, or emerging from the canvas, or shimmering.

She said at the time that she began with a basic geometrical shape (square, circle, line) and then ‘put it through its paces’ – subjecting it to systematic distortions and experiments.

She was immediately recognised as an exciting new voice and included in a 1965 collective exhibition, The Responsive Eye at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, which featured many exponents of what was becoming known as Op Art (short for optical illusion art), so she found herself grouped with them, though she has always disavowed connection with the movement.

There are several rooms full of these wonderful optical illusions from the 1960s, many of which look like they could be on a polka-dot mini-skirt modelled by Twiggy.

Coloured lines

Then, in 1967, Riley first introduced colour into her work. Since then, the way that colour behaves and the way that different colours interact has been one of her main concerns.

At the core of colour is a paradox. It is simultaneously one thing and several things – you can never see colour by itself, it is always affected by other colours.

In particular her analysis led her to realise the importance of lines and edges.

A long line of colour, essentially an ‘edge’ without a large volume to carry, is the ideal element to work with this elusive relationship between colour and light.

It’s fascinating to share with her the discovery that colour is inherently unstable. The colours we see are defined by the other colours we see them with. Hence her work in the later 1960s and throughout the 1970s which explored a wide range of effects created by long, apparently straight, ‘edges’ of colour and the way they bleed and reverberate against each other.

Chant 2 by Bridget Riley (1967) © Bridget Riley 2019

May sound improbable but many of these vast collections of coloured strips do shimmer and vibrate against each other. And I realised that some of them created colour-based optical illusions. Lines of only red and green, viewed at the right distance, create additional lines of yellow which, in reality, are just not there. But you can see them, loud and clear.

In the early 1980s she expanded her palette to include more colours. Ra from 1981 is the first of Riley’s large-scale ‘Egyptian palette’ paintings, inspired by the colours found in ancient Egyptian art. You can see how much richer and deeper it is than something thinner like Chant 2. That’s also because she began using oil paint instead of her previous staple of acrylic paint, oil giving a richer and deeper effect.

Ra by Bridget Riley (1981) © Bridget Riley 2019

Curves

Curves were present in some of the early black-and-white paintings such as Kiss (1961) and Current (1964) but very much within the geometric simplicity of those early works.

In the 1970s she reintroduced curves as a compositional element using a limited number of colours that cross over each other in twisted curves, such as Aubade (1975), Clepsydra (1976) and Streak 2 (1979). You can see how these compositions lead logically on from – or certainly derive a strong visual debt to – the edge and line drawings. She has taken the discoveries of the use of multiple coloured parallel lines and subjected them to wave-like undulations.

Some of them, huge affairs hanging on the Hayward’s big white walls, are quite wonderfully hypnotic.

Stripes and diagonals

In the late 1980s a major shift occurred in Riley’s work when she crossed the stripe with a diagonal thrust of colour. The exhibition features four of these large ‘rhomboid’ paintings which create visual effects far more complex than the earlier Op Art or line paintings.

High Sky by Bridget Riley (1991) © Bridget Riley 2019

To be honest, paintings like this felt a long, long way from the works of the 60s and 70s. They had a very different vibe, and I didn’t warm to them as much. The Op Art stuff feels cool and stylish, sleek and slick like the original James Bond Aston Martin.

This feels more… well, how would you describe it? It is a natural progression from the line paintings which they’re exhibited next to but… some kind of line has been crossed into a different visual universe.

Even more so when, in the 1990s, Riley returned to the idea of interlocking curved shapes but combining them with what she had discovered about the power of diagonals to create more complex but also more zoomorphic or relaxed or curved patterns. And gone are the lines. These are experiments with blocks of colour as shapes, or with the way shaped colour effects us.

Painting with Verticals 3 by Bridget Riley (2006) © Bridget Riley 2019

What there was of hard angles and linear energy in the diagonals paintings has now been almost entirely lost. These rhomboid paintings are more… decorative. If they have a visual energy it is much more diffused.

Something about their sheer size and their bright bright colours reminded me of David Hockney’s last decade or more, both displaying a late-in-life love of big big brightly coloured, blocks of patterned or abstract shapes for their own sake. There were references to Matisse and his late-in-life highly-coloured cutouts. Maybe it is a state some artists arrive at after 50 years of painting – a sense of complete freedom.

Dots

And just when you thought she’d earned the right to hang up her brushes, Riley surprised everyone with another drastic change of approach – coloured dots. Black and white dots had featured in the early Op Art works, but now she set out to investigate the impact of using quite large coloured discs arranged in regular patterns.

The result was a large painting titled Cosmos and a series painted on canvas and on walls known as the Measure for Measure series, and the wall painting Messengers which was recently unveiled as a permanent decoration to the Annenberg Court in the National Gallery, just across the river from the Hayward.

It’s not just the shapes – it’s another experiment with colour as Riley deliberately pared back her pallete to just purple, orange and green. Then in 2018 she added turquoise.

Measure for Measure by Bridget Riley (2017)

Inventor and superviser

At some point one of the wall labels casually mentions that from quite early on Riley designed her pieces and then had assistants actually paint them. This professional and rather detached, scientific approach to the work is reinforced by the Beginnings section which, alongside the early drawings, includes quite a lot of studies for the early abstract works, cartoons or preparatory sketches, which are covered in notes and instructions and she suggested moving various blocks of colour around to experiment with the effects.

It’s somehow rather wonderful and inspiring to think of her as this chief, boss, head designer, experimenter, analyst and visual scientist, paying others to actually make the work so that she can continue her alchemical investigations into the visual power and patterns, designs and colour.

What I really really really missed from the exhibition is any summary of her findings. After a lifetime devoted to experimenting with visual effects – what conclusions can she share with us? She’s quite liberally quoted on the wall labels, but generally only in respect of particular works or series. Are there no general conclusions which she could share with us? I’d love to know.

Life enhancing

The Director of Hayward Gallery is quoted as saying that Riley’s work is not just vision-enhancing but life-enhancing’ and that seems to me absolutely right. This is a wonderful, inspiring and deeply enjoyable exhibition by a great and lovely artist.

I’ve managed to get to the end without conveying that some of the art has really genuinely hallucinatory optical illusory power. I found myself walking back and forth in front of a series up on the first floor of the curved line paintings from the late 60s. They really did shimmer and billow as you walked past. Maybe you get a little of it from this image on your screen, but imagine something like this only ten feet tall. It’s transporting!

Cataract 3 by Bridget Riley (1967) © Bridget Riley 2019

Interview

The exhibition was first staged at the Royal Scottish Academy. In this video Bridget Riley is interviewed by Sir John Leighton, Director General of the National Galleries of Scotland.

Curators

Senior Curator Dr Cliff Lauson, with Assistant Curator Sophie Oxenbridge and Curatorial Assistant Alyssa Bacon.


Related links

Reviews of other Hayward Gallery exhibitions

Courtauld Impressionists: From Manet to Cézanne @ the National Gallery

Samuel Courtauld (1876 – 1947) was rich. He was born into the Courtauld family, which, over several generations, had built up a successful fabric company based in Essex. After a good education and trips abroad to study the business, Courtauld took over as general manager in 1908, and then served as chairman from 1921 to 1946. Under his guidance the firm developed and marketed rayon, an artificial fibre and inexpensive silk substitute, growing into a major international company.

Courtauld became interested in art after seeing the Hugh Lane collection on exhibition at the Tate Gallery in 1917. However, his career as a collector only started in 1922 following an exhibition of French art at the Burlington Fine Arts Club. He was particularly taken with the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings, which were still viewed with suspicion in Britain, even in the art establishment. On seeing a Cézanne, he said:

At that moment I felt the magic, and I have felt it in Cézanne’s work ever since.

He decided to become a full time collector and, during the 1920s Courtauld created two collections in parallel:

  1. in 1923 he created a fund, the Courtauld Fund, of £50,000 to acquire modern French paintings for the National Gallery, which worked through a board of trustees and a network of dealers
  2. at the same time, he also bought works for his own private collection which eventually grew to more than seventy works

This latter set, he displayed at the London house he rented for the purpose, Home House, 20 Portman Square.

Courtauld had always shared his passion with his wife, Elizabeth and when she died in 1931, his interest in collecting waned. However, the experience had shown him that there was a need for sophisticated modern art scholarship, and so he worked with other sponsors and partners to found the Courtauld Institute of Art in 1932.

The Courtauld, as it is generally referred to, went from strength to strength. It is now among the most prestigious institutions in the world for the study of the history of art and conservation, and well known for the disproportionate number of directors of major museums drawn from its small body of alumni.

The Institute houses the Courtauld Gallery which is like a miniature version of the National Gallery, showcasing masterpieces of Western art from medieval times until the turn of the 20th century. Ever since its inception the Gallery has been renowned for the collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings which Samuel Courtauld gave to it 85 years ago.

In autumn 2018 the Courtauld Gallery closed for a major refurbishment. What to do with its priceless art works? It occurred to someone to reunite the French paintings Courtauld gave to his Institute, with the works by the same masters which his trust acquired for the National Gallery back in the 1920s.

Hence this exhibition. Courtauld Impressionists: From Manet to Cézanne brings together the 26 French masterpieces from the Courtauld Gallery and reunites them with the paintings acquired for the National Trust by the Courtauld Trust back in the 1920s.

The result is three large gallery rooms displaying forty three paintings by twelve master of the period in straightforward chronological order. The artists are:

  1. Daumier
  2. Manet
  3. Monet
  4. Renoir
  5. Pissarro
  6. Seurat
  7. Cézanne
  8. Bonnard
  9. Toulouse-Lautrec
  10. Gauguin
  11. Van Gogh

The exhibition tells two stories at the same time. On the surface this is yet another excuse (or opportunity) to trace the epoch-defining development of French painting from the 1860s to the 1900s, with lengthy wall labels about each of the twelve artists, and how they contributed to Impressionism and what became known, rather unsatisfactorily, as post-Impressionism – and then a wall label for each painting, telling us about the subject matter and treatment.

But each of the wall labels, and the audioguide, also give the stories behind Courtauld’s purchases of each of the paintings. These are sometimes convoluted, often expensive, and sometimes funny. It was intriguing to learn that Vollard, the famous art collector and dealer, who had had his portrait done by Renoir, Pissarro and others, actively wished a representation of himself to be displayed in Britain and so encouraged Courtauld to buy Renoir’s portrait of him. It cost Courtauld a whopping 800,000 francs.

Other anecdotes include the fact that the sketch of Manet’s famous Dejeuner sur l’herbe set him back £10,000, and that Courtauld bought van Gogh’s searing painting of a wheatfield for a mere £3,300, a lot of money at the time – but think what it would fetch now!

Money and philistinism

Although the curators prefer to think of this as a story about Cortauld’s ‘visionary and extraordinarily generous’ approach to art, it is also a story about money. The power of money, the necessity of money, the unavoidable imbrecation of art and money.

And peeping through the chinks in this mostly positive account of one man’s taste, drive and generosity – there is another story about the staggering philistinism of the British. It really is worth reflecting that, in the 1920s and into the 1930s, major British art institutes chose not to buy Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art because they didn’t think it was proper painting.

What barbarism! What philistinism! (That, in case you didn’t realise it, is why so much Modern French art ended up in America; rich Yanks snapped up works which the hoity-toity Brits turned their noses up at).

It is shaming to learn that the National Gallery refused, twice, to buy Degas’s masterpiece Young Spartans Exercising. Courtauld bought it and only 15 years later was it bequested to the National who had, at last, grasped its importance.

Similarly, it is appalling to learn that when the Cézanne self-portrait which Courtauld had acquired was first publicly displayed, in 1934, it had to be glazed to protect it from any attempts to deface and vandalise it!

Greatest hits

The exhibition includes some of the absolute all-time high points of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, including La Loge by Renoir, Young Spartans Exercising by Degas, Seurat’s immense Bathers at Asnières, Cézanne’s Card PlayersTe Rerioa by Paul Gauguin

Personal favourites

From this treasury, I emerged liking four paintings in particular. This Degas painting of a woman at a window has always been tucked away in a corner when I’ve seen it at the Courtauld Gallery. This has added to its sense of mystery. But what I mainly like about it is the unfinished, dark obscurity of the image. In general, like strong defining black lines, disegno, outlines – and here you can feel Degas’s draughtsmanship performing an piece of magic – caught in the act of making a woman of flesh appear from a sequence of lines and dark colours. Next to it is a classic painting of two ballet dancers on stage, prettier, more finished. But for me, Woman at a window has always had atmosphere.

Woman at a Window (1871-72) by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas © The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London

Woman at a Window (1871-72) by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas © The Samuel Courtauld Trust

Talking of pairs, take the corner of the room where the Manet section ends and the Monet section begins. The Monets include a wonderfully light luminescent view of the River Seine titled Autumn Effect at Argenteuil. (Like most Monets it looks far better seen from across the room; the further away the more luminous it becomes.)

Autumn Effect at Argenteuil (1873) by Claude Monet © The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London

Autumn Effect at Argenteuil (1873) by Claude Monet © The Samuel Courtauld Trust

Famous though they are, I didn’t like the handful of other Manets on show here. They confirmed my feeling that I don’t like Manet that much, I really do find his paintings scrappy and unfinished, often with errors of draughtsmanship and perspective which annoy me.

Except for this view of the Seine which he painted around the time he got to know Monet and had gone to stay with him at his Seine-side house. Here you can see Manet copying Monet’s use of broken brushstrokes and light, airy palette. But what I like Manet’s river study, why I prefer it to Monet’s, is the intensity of the black – in the ribbon round the woman’s hat, in the shadow of the boats – and the deepness and richness of the blue tone he’s used for the river water, darker, fuller, richer than the light frolicsome Monet. For me, this makes the picture much more biting, punchy, virile.

Which one do you prefer?

Banks of the Seine at Argenteuil (1874) by Edouard Manet, on loan to The Courtauld Gallery from a private collection © The Samuel Courtauld Trust

Banks of the Seine at Argenteuil (1874) by Edouard Manet, on loan to The Courtauld Gallery from a private collection © The Samuel Courtauld Trust

Having established that I like strong blacks, it was no surprise to me that I kept returning to Renoir’s La Loge i.e. the box at the theatre.

In reviews of other Impressionist exhibitions, and books, I’ve already pointed out that it seems to me Renoir established a ‘look’, a style, a brand, early on and stuck to it for most of his career (until, admittedly, he drastically changed in the last decade of his life).

The commentary gives a sophisticated analysis of the picture. It explains that a Paris theatre box was a place to see and be seen. It explains that the woman is on show, knows she is on show, is looking straight at us, putting us right there, maybe in a box opposite, an effect subtly reinforced by the way a) her male companion is busy scanning the crowd with opera glasses, maybe looking for another beautiful woman to ogle at (as we, it is implied, as observing this one) and b) the way the details at the periphery (her hands, the edge of the box) are blurred as if we are looking at her through opera glasses, which blur the edge of vision.

All this is true, but I just like the pattern of her dress, the strong black and white lines – and above all, the porcelain beauty of the woman’s face, pale and perfect. It took me a while to realise that this is because her face is the only part of the composition which is painted smoothly and with great finish – everything else is blurred and unsettling to look at. Whichever detail you zero in on, you end up being pushed back to her perfect face as a point of rest. I find it hypnotic.

The Theatre Box (1874) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir © The Samuel Courtauld Trust

The Theatre Box (1874) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir © The Samuel Courtauld Trust

The three Gauguin paintings on display are important but don’t quite do it for me. I like Gauguin but, for all the talk of the exotic South Seas, the selection here was surprisingly drab, dominated by a worn out brown colour. (Poor Bonnard had a little section next to Gauguin and van Gogh; his two works were knocked completely into the shade by them).

No, the masterpiece of the final room is A Wheatfield, with Cypresses by Vincent van Gogh. Whereas reproductions tend to improve Monet’s Impressionist works (often a bit scrappy when seen close-up), no reproduction can convey the extraordinary turmoil and rhythm and energy of this van Gogh.

It is a revelation, a masterpiece which, for me, towers above all the other masterpieces on show. Being able to go right up to the surface and investigate the complex technique of whirls and splashes of thick oil van Gogh used to create the impression of tumult and dynamism is worth the price of admission by itself. It really is. The closer you get, the more you can see the gaps in the swirling brushstrokes and the raw canvas beneath, can see the way the red blodges at the bottom have been added to the already thick layers of paint to convey poppies. But the extravagance of the impasto, the thick layers of paint used, only adds to the tremendous emotionality of the picture. Viewed in a smoother-out reproduction (as below) it is great, but viewed in the flesh, close-up, it is like being struck by lightning.

A Wheatfield, with Cypresses (1889) by Vincent van Gogh by the Courtauld Fund, 1923 © The National Gallery, London

A Wheatfield, with Cypresses (1889) by Vincent van Gogh by the Courtauld Fund, 1923
© The National Gallery, London

A mystery

You exit the three big gallery rooms which contain these masterpieces into the shop (fridge magnets, books, tote bags etc) and then into room 41, another big National gallery room. This one follows on naturally from the subject matter of the previous exhibition with works by Monet and van Gogh among other turn of the century French artists and then….

You notice that no fewer than eight of the paintings in this room have a label next to them indicating that they, too, were collected by the Courtauld Trust and donated to the National Gallery. They should, in other words, be included in the exhibition. Why aren’t they?

Lack of space? But surely the existing 40 or so paintings could have been shuffled up a bit… or display panels could have been erected in the middle of the rooms, as I’ve seen done at countless exhibitions.

The paintings which are part of the Courtauld bequest but are not included in the Courtauld exhibition include a Monet waterlilies, a view of the St Lazare station in Paris, and van Gogh’s Sunflowers (bought by the Courtauld Fund, 1924) and van Gogh’s chair (bought by the Courtauld Fund, 1924).

If the exhibition aims to bring together all the Courtauld’s Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works in one place… these should without doubt have been included in the exhibition.

Maybe… maybe they’re too famous. Over six million people visit the National Gallery every year. These paintings are among the most popular attractions. Maybe the National Gallery is forbidden to make people pay to see them. Or maybe it was just discretion on the part of the curators, knowing that many people might make the pilgrimage down to London, or from abroad, many to see these treasures… and then be pretty disgruntled to discover they had to pay to see them.

Maybe displaying eight painting which Courtauld bought for the nation outside an exhibition about paintings which Courtauld bought for the nation, was the only solution.

Van Gogh's chair by Vincent van Gogh. Not in the Courtauld Impressionist exhibition, but free to see at the National gallery

Van Gogh’s chair by Vincent van Gogh. Not in the Courtauld Impressionist exhibition, but free to see anytime at the National Gallery

Video

Exhibition curator Anne Robbins talks us through two pivotal works bought by Courtauld, including Manet’s last great masterpiece, ‘A Bar at the Folies-Bergère’.


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Daumier @ the Royal Academy

Robert Daumier is known as a cartoonist, satirist and chronicler of Parisian life in the mid-19th century. This exhibition – Daumier 1808-1879 Visions of Paris – at the Royal Academy brings together 130 works to argue for a re-evaluation of his achievement ie to raise him from political cartoonist to ‘artist’. The exhibition covers the full range of media he worked in – newspaper caricatures, witty lithographs, small satirical sculptures, drawings, watercolours and paintings – and arranges it chronologically, but certain obvious themes run throughout.

Politics

Daumier fought on the barricades of the July 1830 which overthrew the Bourbons and brought the constitutional King Louis Philippe to power. There was to follow the 1848 revolution, the coup of Napoleon III (1851), the Franco-Prussian War and the Commune (1870). Through the ups and downs of French 19th century history and the repeated defeats of the republican cause by reactionary royalists or turncoat liberals, he remained a republican atheist, refusing to go to church even for funerals, and drawn to the sufferings of ordinary people. Aged 60 he was drafted onto the Commune as art delegate.

Thus his lifelong employment on Charivari, the French equivalent of Punch or Private Eye, turning out reams of satirical cartoons satirising kings, emperors, presidents and politicians, as well as the upper classes and the pretentions of the bourgeoisie.

In Gargantua, an early example, money is being collected for the poor, hauled up into the mouth of king Louis Philippe who craps it out as peerages, awards and jobs for the upper classes. Stylistically, it is unusual, but the attitude of bitter satire is characteristic. This cartoon earned the 22 year old Daumier a 6 month prison sentence and fine.

Gargantua by Daumier, 1831

Gargantua by Daumier, 1831

A section is devoted to caricatures of artists, their fans, collectors and connoisseurs, and satire on the yawning gap between the idealised world of art, especially neo-classical sculpture, and the more sordid realities of 19th century life.

Critics by Daumier

Critics by Daumier

Big oil paintings

At the other end of the scale, Daumier tried repeatedly but struggled to create the large oil paintings which would have qualified him as a proper ‘artist’. Though he received some commissions he seems never to have finished them. He was certainly never interested in the established genres of landscape, still life, history and mythological paintings, or serious portraits, the kinds of work which got you noticed and big money commissions. The handful of big oil paintings on display are a mixed bunch.

Ecce Homo by Daumier, 1849

Ecce Homo by Daumier, 1849

Ecce Homo (1849) is his largest work and highlights his limitations – at the top is the striking gesture of the accuser and the rather haunting silhouette of Christ, but other areas are unfinished or of uneven composition.

The exhibition devoted a little section to Daumier’s depiction of life on the newish railway trains, focusing on another large painting, The Third Class Railway Carriage (1865). The version here is unfinished, displaying the grid of squares used to create it. It is an example of Daumier’s lifelong concern for and feel for the life of the labouring poor. Like a lot of his work, it is a striking image but not a great painting.

The Third Class Carriage by Daumier, 1865

The Third Class Carriage by Daumier, 1865

By far the best of the big oil paintings is the wonderful Man on a Rope (1860).

Man on a Rope by Daumier, 1860

Man on a Rope by Daumier, 1860

It plays to Daumier’s strengths – striking composition or arrangement of the human body, compassion for the human condition – without exposing his biggest shortcoming, realistic depiction of the human face. The most wonderful thing is its unfinished condition: you can plainly see the canvas and the paint is scored and scratched. It is a strikingly modern approach to painting, anticipating the similar rough unfinishedness characteristic of much 20th century art, and a standout piece.

Small oil paintings

Daumier is more at home with small paintings, a couple of foot long at the most. In a very uneven exhibition, probably more successes are in this group than any other. He is not very good at the face, at features or expression. His best compositions are of human figures which, often because of the blurred or unclear faces, have a haunting evanescent quality.

I liked the early painting of The Bathers (1846). Note the completely blank faces. The exhibition notes introduced me to the technique of contre-jour ie having daylight at the back heightened by a foreground in shade. Like many Daumier images this is better the smaller, the more compact and powerful, it becomes.

The Bathers by Daumier, 1846

The Bathers by Daumier, 1846

The Amateur, a much later small painting from the series about art and collectors is more finished but shows the same fundamental qualities, the key is the stance of the human subject whose face is obscured.

The Amateur by Daumier, 1860

The Amateur by Daumier, 1860

It is also a very low key composition. It isn’t, like so much Victorian painting, capturing a moment of high drama, or historical crisis or mythological intensity. It is a quiet candid depiction of a man  looking through prints in a shop. This seems to me a rare quality in art, just to capture the ordinary human being going about some quite nondescript activity. For me a standout example is Man reading in a Garden (1868). This watercolour epitomises Daumier’s ability to capture simple human moments. What could be simpler and yet, in its way, more profound?

Man reading in a Garden by Daumier, 1868

Man reading in a Garden by Daumier, 1868

Compassion for the poor

Talking of ordinary people and ordinary scenes brings us to Daumier’s lifelong concern for the poor. In lithographs, cartoons, sketches, paintings Daumier returned again and again to the trials and tribulations of the ordinary labouring poor.

It’s worth noting that he didn’t work from life but from memory, and that he reworked the same compositions again and again. There are half a dozen sketches of man on a rope, numerous versions of the travellers in the train carriage. An example of both practices is a series of sketches and paintings he did of the laundresses who worked at the Seine near his house.

The Washerwoman by Daumier, 1863

The Washerwoman by Daumier, 1863

The effort of carrying the laundry bag under your left arm and reaching down to help your toddler up that crucial final step to the pavement are wonderfully captured. But note the absence of facial detail or expression. The image is about the body, about effort, about work.

The exhibition includes some contemporary photographs, street scenes from the 1850s taken by pioneer-artist-turned-photographer Charles Nègre chosen so we can compare Daumier’s treatment of street entertainers with Nègre’s photos of the same. There’s a photo of a barrel organist next to Daumier’s painting of one.

A particular category of street scene fascinates him, circus entertainers, the saltimbanques. The commentary makes the smart point that these entertainers often drummed up trade to go into the Big Top, to see the Main Attraction and therefore Daumier’s interest might be a bitter comment on his own status as lowly cartoonist and sketcher who drummed up interest in ‘real artists’ with their 50 foot wide historical canvases etc.

Maybe. Or maybe he was just aware of the irony of so many street performers who made a living cheering people up while often being themselves very poor. In Daumier’s characteristic way, the same scenes and characters are repeated and reworked in different settings or poses. This section reminded me of the wandering entertainers Nell and her grandfather fall in with in Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop (1841).

The sideshow by Daumier, 1866

The sideshow by Daumier, 1866

Don Quixote

Daumier had a lifelong fascination with Don Quixote and generated numerous images of the knight throughout his life. The commentary makes much of the dichotomy between the skinny visionary and the plump pragmatist Sancho Panza and claims that Daumier saw the same dichotomy in his own character, between the artist drawn to visionary paintings and the blunt down-to-earth satirist. Almost the final piece in the exhibition is a strange and surprisingly modern painting of the pair, radically unfinished, which Francis Bacon apparently claimed as one of his favourite paintings – the Don is turning into C-3PO and his squire into a Henry Moore sculpture. Very strange.

Don Quixote and Sancho Panza by Daumier, 1870

Don Quixote and Sancho Panza by Daumier, 1870

A little more characteristic is this haunting image – it is better in the flesh – of Don Quixote and the Mule, a haunting image of abandonment and desolation.

Don Quixote and the Mule by Daumier, 1866

Don Quixote and the Mule by Daumier, 1866

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