People Power: Fighting for Peace @ Imperial War Museum London

O silly and unlucky are the brave,
Who tilt against the world’s enormous wrong.
Their serious little efforts will not save
Themselves or us. The enemy is strong.
O silly and unlucky are the brave. (W.H. Auden, 1937)

It’s the centenary of the Imperial War Museum, set up in the same year as the Battle of Passchendaele and the Russian Revolution. 100 years of terrifying conflict, warfare, worldwide destruction and incomprehensible hecatombs of violent death. To mark the hundred years since its founding IWM London is mounting an exhibition chronicling the history of protest against war and its mad destruction.

People Power: Fighting for Peace presents a panorama of British protest across the past decades, bringing together about three hundred items – paintings, works of literature, posters, banners, badges and music – along with film and TV news footage, and audio clips from contemporaries, to review the growth and evolution of protest against war.

The exhibition very much focuses on the common people, with lots of diaries, letters and photos from ordinary men and women who protested against war or refused to go to war, alongside some, deliberately limited, examples from better-known writers and artists.

The show is in four sections:

First World War and 1920s

Having finished reading most of Kipling recently, I have a sense of how tremendously popular the Boer War (1899 to 1902) was in Britain. If there was an outburst of creativity it was in the name of raising money for the soldiers and their families, and commemorating ‘victories’ like Mafeking on mugs and tea towels. I am still struck by the vast success of Kipling’s charity poem, the Absent-Minded Beggar (1899).

12 years later the Great War prompted the same outpourings of patriotic fervour in the first year or so. But then the lack of progress and the appalling levels of casualties began to take their toll. From the first there had been pacifists and conscientious objectors, the Fabians of H.G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw, or the Bloomsbury Circle with its attendant vegetarians, naturists and exponents of free love (as documented in the current exhibition of art by Vanessa Bell at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, and hilariously satirised by John Buchan in his gung-ho adventure story, Mr Standfast). 

The exhibition features personal items and letters revealing the harrowing experiences of Conscientious Objectors who faced non-combatant service, forced labour, imprisonment and hostility from wider society. (Conscription of all unmarried men between 18 and 41 was only brought in in March 1916 when the supply of volunteers dried up.) In fact the first half of the show very much focuses on the ordeals and changing treatment of Conscientious Objectors, because both the First and Second Wars featured conscription, forcing some men to make very difficult choices. In the Great War there were 16,000 COs; in the Second War 60,000.

The show brings out the principled stand of Quakers, religious non-conformists with absolute pacifist principles, who had been persecuted ever since their foundation in the turmoil of the Civil Wars. The Quakers set up the Friends Ambulance Unit, and there is a display case showing photos, letters from the founders and so on. One of the Great War artists, CRW Nevinson, served with the unit from October 1914 to January 1915 and two of his oil paintings are here. Neither is as good as the full flood of his Futurist style as exemplified in La Mitrailleuse (1915) – like many of the violent modernists his aggression was tempered and softened by the reality of slaughter. His later war paintings are spirited works of propaganda, but not so thrilling as works of art:

The exhibition displays here, and throughout, the special tone that women anti-war protestors brought to their activities. Many suffragettes became ardent supporters of the war and there is on display the kind of hand-written abuse and a white feather which women handed out to able-bodied men in the street who weren’t in uniform. There is fascinating footage of a rally of Edwardian women demanding to be able to work – and of course tens of thousands ended up working in munitions factories and in countless other capacities.

The millions of voiceless common soldiers were joined by growing numbers of disillusioned soldiers and especially their officers, who had the contacts and connections to make their views known. Siegfried Sassoon is probably the most famous example of a serving officer who declared his disgust at the monstrous loss of life, the mismanagement of the war, and revulsion at the fortunes being made in the arms industry by profiteers. There’s a copy of the letter of protest he wrote to his commanding officer in 1917 and which ended up being read out in the House of Commons, a photo of him hobnobbing with grand Lady Garsington and a manuscript of one of the no-nonsense poems Sassoon published while the war was still massacring the youth of Europe (in Counter-Attack 1918):

‘Good-morning, good-morning!’ the General said
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ’em dead,
And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
‘He’s a cheery old card,’ grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.

But he did for them both by his plan of attack.

Fascinatingly, the hand-written text here has Sassoon’s original, much blunter, angrier version.

‘Good-morning, good-morning!’ the General said
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ’em dead,
And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
‘He’s a cheery old card,’ grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.

But he murdered them both by his plan of attack.

The recent exhibition of Paul Nash at Tate Britain explored how the blasphemous ruination of the natural landscape by ceaseless bombardment affected this sensitive painter. The exhibition shows some of the Nash works that IWM owns. Nash went on to have a nervous breakdown in the early 1920s.

Wire (1918) by Paul Nash © IWM

Wire (1918) by Paul Nash © IWM

1930s and Second World War

Throughout what W.H. Auden famously called the ‘low dishonest decade’ of the 1930s the memory of the Great War made pacifism and anti-war views much more widespread and intellectually and socially acceptable. Even the most jingoistic of soldiers remembered the horror of the trenches. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had been directly involved in the Great War government and this experience was part of his motivation in going the extra mile to try and appease Hitler at the infamous Munich Agreement of 1938.

All sorts of organisations organised and lobbied against the looming menace of war. In 1935 the Peace Pledge Union was founded. The exhibition shows black and white film footage of self-consciously working class, Labour and communist marches against war. Nevinson is represented by a (very poor) pacifist painting – The Unending Cult of Human Sacrifice (1934). There is the fascinating titbit that Winnie the Pooh novelist A.A. Milne published a 1934 pacifist pamphlet titled Peace With Honour. But like many others he later changed his mind, a change recorded in letters here: the rise of fascist Germany was just too evil to be wished away.

The exhibition includes diaries, letters and photography which shed light on the personal struggles faced by these anti-war campaigners – but nothing any of these high-minded spirits did prevented the worst cataclysm in human history breaking out. The thread of conscientious objectors is picked up again – there were some 62,000 COs in the second war, compared to 16,000 in the first, and letters, diaries, photographs of individuals and CO Tribunals give a thorough sense of the process involved, the forms of alternative work available, as well as punishments for ‘absolutists’ – those who refused to work on anything even remotely connected with the war.

A march of 2,000 anti-conscription protesters in London, 1939 © IWM

A march of 2,000 anti-conscription protesters in London, 1939 © IWM

The single most inspiring story in the exhibition, for me, was that of John Bridge, a convinced pacifist and physics teacher, who nonetheless volunteered to train as a bomb disposal expert. He has a display case to himself which shows photos, letters and so on, and gives a detailed account of his war time service in a succession of conflict zones, along with the actual fuses of several of the bombs he defused, and the rack of medals he won for outstanding bravery. In serving his country but in such a clear-cut non-aggressive, life-saving role, I was shaken by both his integrity and tremendous bravery.

Cold War

The largest section of the exhibition explores the 45-year stand-off between the two superpowers which emerged from the rubble of the Second World War – the USA and the USSR – which was quickly dubbed ‘the Cold War’. Having recently read John Lewis Gaddis’s History of the Cold War, I tend to think of the period diving into three parts:

1. The early years recorded in black-and-white TV footage characterised by both sides testing their atom and then hydrogen bombs, and leading to the near apocalypse of the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. The exhibition commemorates the many mass marches from the centre of London to the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at RAF Aldermaston in Berkshire about thirty miles away. Interestingly, it includes some of the early designs for a logo for the Campaign For Nuclear Disarmament (founded in 1958). These various drafts were made by artist and designer Gerald Holtom, before he settled on the logo familiar to all of us now. This, it turns out, is a combination of the semaphore signals for the letters ‘N’ and ‘D’.

© Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) Badges courtesy of Ernest Rodker

© Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) Badges courtesy of Ernest Rodker

Although Holtom is also quoted as saying it draws something from the spread arms of the peasant about to be executed in the Spanish painter Goya’s masterpiece, The Third of May 1808.

2. The Cuban crisis shook the leadership of both nuclear powers and led to a range of failsafe arrangements, not least the connection of a hotline between the US President and the Russian Premier. I always wondered what happened to the whole Aldermaston March culture with its earnest young men and women in black-and-white footage carrying banners against the bomb. The exhibition explains that a 1963 Test Ban treaty between the superpowers took a lot of the threat out of nuclear weapons. It also coincides (in my mind anyway) with Bob Dylan abandoning folk music and going electric in 1965. Suddenly everything seems to be in colour and about the Vietnam War.

This was because the Cold War, doused in Europe, morphed into a host of proxy wars fought in Third World countries, the most notable being the Vietnam War (additionally complicated by the fact that communist China was the main superpower opponent).

The same year Dylan went electric, and TV news is all suddenly in colour, the U.S. massively increased its military presence in Vietnam and began ‘Operation Thunder’, the strategy of bombing North Vietnam. Both these led in just a few years to the explosion of the ‘counter-culture’ and there’s a section here which includes a mass of ephemera from 1960s pop culture – flyers, badges, t-shirts etc emblazoned with the CND symbol amid hundreds of other slogans and logos, and references to the concerts for peace and tunes by the likes of Joan Baez and John Lennon.

Reviled though he usually is, it was actually Republican President Nixon who was elected on a promise to bring the Vietnam War to an end. Nixon also instituted the policy of détente, basically seeking ways for the superpowers to work together, find common interests and avoid conflicts. This policy was taken up by his successor Gerald Ford and continued by the Democrat Jimmy Carter, and led to a series of treaties designed to reduce the number of nuclear weapons on both sides and ease tensions.

3. Détente was running out of steam when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in December 1979 and a year later the tough-talking Republican President Ronald Reagan was elected US President. Reagan’s more confrontational anti-communist line was accompanied by the development of a new generation of long-range missiles. When the British government of Mrs Thatcher agreed to the deployment of these cruise missiles at RAF Greenham in Berkshire, it inaugurated a new generation of direct protest which grew into a cultural phenomenon – a permanent camp of entirely female protesters who undertook a range of anti-nuke protests amid wide publicity.

The Greenham camp began in September 1981 after a Welsh group, Women for Life on Earth, arrived to protest the arrival of the cruise missiles, and continued an impressive 19 years until it was disbanded in 2000. The exhibition includes lots of memorabilia from the camp including a recreation of part of the perimeter fence of the base – and provides ribbons for us to tie onto the metal wire, like the Greenham women did, but with our own modern-day messages. And this impressive banner made by Thalia Campbell, one of the original 36 women to protest at Greenham Common.

Banner by Thalia Campbell © Thalia Campbell courtesy of The Peace Museum

Banner by Thalia Campbell © Thalia Campbell courtesy of The Peace Museum

Peter Kennard is very much the visual artist of this era, with his angry, vivid, innovative photo-montages. I remembered the IWM exhibition devoted entirely to his shocking striking powerful black-and-white posters and pamphlets.

Modern Era

When the Soviet Union collapsed and the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 (and Ronald Reagan and Mrs Thatcher left power, 1989 and 1990 respectively), many pundits and commentators promised that the world would benefit from a huge ‘peace dividend’. Frances Fukuyama published his influential essay The End of History – which just go to show how stupid clever people can be.

In fact, the fall of communism was followed in short order by the first Gulf War (1990-91), the Balkan Wars (1991-5), civil war in Somalia, the war in Afghanistan (2001-2014), the war in Iraq (2003-2011), and then the Arab Spring, which has led to ongoing civil wars in Syria and Libya. In all of these conflicts Western forces played a role.

Obviously the 9/11 attacks on New York ushered in a new era in which radical Islam has emerged as the self-declared enemy of the West. It is an age which feels somehow more hopeless and depressed than before. The Aldermaston marchers, the peaceniks of the 1960s, the Greenham grannies (as they were nicknamed) clung to an optimistic and apparently viable vision of a peaceful world.

9/11 and then the ruinous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq combined with the financial crash of 2008 and the never-ending conflict in the Middle East, along with the permanent sense of threat from Islamic terrorism, somehow make this an era without realistic alternatives. Financial institutions rule the world and are above the law. Appalling terrorist acts can happen anywhere, at any moment.

Protest has had more channels than ever before to vent itself, with the advent of the internet in the 1990s and social media in the 2000s and yet, somehow… never has the will of the bienpensant, liberal, cosmopolitan part of the population seemed so powerless. A sense that the tide is somehow against the high-minded idealism of the educated bourgeoisie was crystalised by the Brexit vote of June 2016 and then the (unbelievable) election of Donald Trump as U.S. President.

This final section of the exhibition includes a world of artefacts from this last 28 years or so – the era of Post-Communism.

In terms of anti-war protest it overwhelmingly showcases the numerous protests which have taken place against Western interference in and invasions of Arab countries. It includes a big display case on Brian Haw’s protest camp in Parliament Square (2001-2011). There’s a wall of the original ‘blood splat’ artwork and posters created by David Gentleman for the Stop the War Coalition, including his ‘No More Lies’ and ‘Bliar’ designs, as well as his original designs for the largest protest in British history, when up to 2 million people protested in London on 15 February 2003 against the Iraq War.

Photo-Op by kennardphillipps (2005) © kennardphillipps

Photo-Op by kennardphillipps (2005) © kennardphillipps

The exhibition features a kind of continual aural soundscape in that there are well-amplified sounds of chants and protests from the different eras and installations washing & overlapping over each other, as you progress through it. In addition, there are also headphone posts where you can slip headphones on and listen to a selection of voices from the respective era (1930s, 1950s, 1980s).

Effectiveness

Did it work? Any of it? Did Sassoon’s poems stop the Great War a day earlier? Did all the political activism of the 1930s prevent the Second World War? Did the Greenham Women force the cruise missiles to be removed? Did anything anyone painted, carried, did or said, stop Bush and Blair from invading Iraq?

On the face of it – No.

The question is addressed in the final room, or more accurately alcove or bay, where a large TV screen runs a series of interviews with current luminaries of protest such as Mark Rylance (actor), Kate Hudson (General Secretary of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament), Vanessa Redgrave (actor), Lindsey German (convenor of the Stop the War Coalition), David Gentleman (artist associated with Stop the War) From these fascinating interviews there emerge, I think, three points:

1. To the Big Question the answer is No – All the marches, banners, posters and activism never prevented or stopped a single war.

2. But, on the plus side, very large protests can influence the culture. There is now probably a widespread feeling across most of British society that British troops must not be sent to invade a foreign country, certainly not another Middle Eastern country, ever again. This helped decide the vote in August 2013 in which MPs voted against David Cameron’s proposal to allow RAF planes to join other NATO allies in attacking ISIS forces inside Syria. But was this due to any of the protests, or simply due to the long drawn-out mismanagement of the war which so obviously led to bloody chaos in Iraq, and the loss of lots of British troops and – for what? And then again, they didn’t create a culture of total pacifism, far from it – In December 2015, MPs voted in favour of allowing RAF Typhoons to join in attacks on ISIS in Syria i.e. for Britain to be involved in military operations in the Middle East. Again.

3. Community So none of the interviewees gave any concrete evidence of any government decisions or military activity being at all influenced by any protest.

But instead, they all testified to the psychological and sociological benefits of protest – of the act of joining others, sometimes a lot of others, and coming together in a virtuous cause. For Mark Rylance joining protests helped him lance ‘toxic’ feelings of impotent anger. One of the other interviewees mentioned that marching and protesting is a kind of therapy. It makes you feel part of a wider community, a big family. It helps you not to feel alone and powerless. Lindsey German said it was exciting, empowering and liberating to transform London for one day, when the largest protest in British history took place on 15 February 2003 against the prospect of the invasion of Iraq.

This made me reflect on the huge numbers of women who took part in the marches against Donald Trump in January 2017, not just in Washington DC but across the USA and in other countries too. Obviously, they didn’t remove him from power. But:

  • they made their views felt, they let legislators know there is sizeable active opposition to his policies
  • many if not most will have experienced that sense of community and togetherness which the interviewees mention, personally rewarding and healing
  • and they will have made contacts, exchanged ideas and maybe returned to their communities empowered to organise at a grass-roots level, to resist and counter the policies they oppose

Vietnam

The one war in the past century which you can argue was ended by protests in a Western country was the Vietnam War. By 1968 the U.S. government – and President Lyndon Johnson in particular – realised he couldn’t continue the war in face of the nationwide scale of the protests against it. In March 1968 Johnson announced he wouldn’t be standing for re-election and declared a winding-down of U.S. troop involvement, a policy followed through by his successor, Nixon. But:

a) Handing over the people of South Vietnam to a generation of tyranny under the North Vietnamese communist party was hardly a noble and uplifting thing to do.

b) In the longer term, the debacle of the Vietnam War showed American and NATO leaders how all future conflicts needed to be handled on the domestic front i.e very carefully. Wars in future

  • would need to be quick and focused, employing overwhelming force, the so-called ‘shock and awe’ tactic
  • the number of troops required should never get anywhere near requiring the introduction of conscription or the draft, with the concomitant widespread opposition
  • the media must be kept under tight control

This latter is certainly a take-home message from the three books by war photographer Don McCullin, which I’ve read recently. During the Vietnam War he and the hundreds of other reporters and photographers could hitch lifts on helicopters more or less at will, go anywhere, interview everyone, capture the chaos, confusion, demoralisation and butchery of war with complete freedom. Many generals think the unlimited reporting of the media lost the war in Vietnam (as opposed to the more obvious conclusion that the North Vietnamese won it).

The result has been that after Vietnam, Western war ministries clamped down on media coverage of their wars. In McCullin’s case this meant that he was actively prevented from going to the Falklands War (April to June 1982), something which has caused him great personal regret but which typifies, on a wider level, the way that War was reported in a very controlled way, so that there’s been an enduring deficit in records about it.

Thus from the First Gulf War (1990-91) onwards, war ministries in all NATO countries have insisted on ’embedding’ journalists with specific units where they have to stay and can be controlled.

Like the twentieth century itself, this exhibition is sprawling, wide-ranging, and perplexing – sparking all sorts of ideas, feelings and emotions which are difficult to reconcile and assimilate, since its central questions – Is war ever morally justified? If so, why and when and how should it be fought? – remain as difficult to answer as they were a hundred years ago – as they have always been.

The video

Related links

Review of other exhibitions at the Imperial war Museum

Vanessa Bell @ Dulwich Picture Gallery

‘You have a genius in your life as well as in your art’
(Art critic Roger Fry to his sometime lover, artist Vanessa Bell)

More than anything I can write, this YouTube montage of Vanessa Bell’s paintings set to music by Chopin gives a good overview of her work.

Biography

Vanessa Stephen (1879-1961) was born into an upper-middle-class and well-connected Victorian family. She was the eldest daughter of Sir Leslie Stephen and Julia Prinsep Duckworth, Julia being a niece of the pioneering Victorian photographer, Julia Margaret Cameron, and cousin of the noted temperance leader, Lady Henry Somerset.

Her siblings were a younger sister, Virginia (later renowned as a great novelist under her married name of Virginia Woolf), brothers Thoby (Clifton College and Trinity, Cambridge) and Adrian (Westminster school and Trinity, Cambridge), and half-brothers, George and Gerald Duckworth (both educated at Eton, Gerald went on to found the publishing house named after him, and was able to help Virginia set up her publishing house, Hogarth Press).

The Stephen family lived in a smart house at 22 Hyde Park Gate, Westminster, with lots of servants where Vanessa was home educated in languages, mathematics and history. She showed an early gift for art and had drawing lessons from Ebenezer Cook, before she attended Sir Arthur Cope’s art school in 1896, and then went on to study painting at the Royal Academy in 1901 under John Singer Sargent.

After the death of her father in 1904, Vanessa sold the Hyde Park Gate house and moved to Bloomsbury, along with Virginia and the brothers. Here they began socialising with the like-minded artists, writers and intellectuals who would form the ‘Bloomsbury Group’ who, in all areas of life, art and literature, set themselves to overthrow the stifling influence of their Victorian parents.

Self–Portrait (c. 1915) by Vanessa Bell © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett

Self–Portrait (c. 1915) by Vanessa Bell © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett

Vanessa married the art critic Clive Bell in 1907 and they had two sons, Julian and Quentin. The couple had an open marriage, both taking lovers throughout their lives. Bell had affairs with art critic Roger Fry and with the notoriously bisexual painter, Duncan Grant, with whom she had a daughter, Angelica, in 1918.

Vanessa and husband Clive, their lover Duncan Grant and his boyfriend ‘Bunny’, all moved to the Sussex countryside shortly before the outbreak of the First World War, and settled at Charleston Farmhouse near Firle in East Sussex. By farming here the menfolk, all pacifists and conscientious objectors, evaded service in the Great War.

Here Vanessa and Grant painted and also worked on commissions for the Omega Workshops, an artists’ co-operative for decorative arts established by Roger Fry that operated between 1913 and 1919, and which produced interesting work in a Vorticist/Futurist style. Her first solo exhibition was at the Omega Workshops in 1916. The influence of contemporary radical experiments in Futurism and Vorticism are immediately obvious in many of these bold, colourful designs.

Design for Omega Workshops Fabric (1913) by Vanessa Bell © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett

Design for Omega Workshops Fabric (1913) by Vanessa Bell © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett

Bell lived a long life and painted right through to the 1950s, but even her most devoted fans admit that the 1910s represent her most creative and innovative period. In the 1910s, 20s and 30s she was a member of a group of friends and acquaintances who pioneered new ways of living, open marriages and a very liberal approach to sexuality. But works from the 1940s and 50s show her slowly losing the radical edge of the period either side of the Great War, her depictions of the Sussex countryside or of interiors with vases of flowers, becoming steadily more conventional.

The exhibition

This is the first ever retrospective of Bell’s work. It brings together some 100 paintings, book jackets she designed for the Hogarth Press, ceramics, fabrics, photos, diaries and letters to present a themed overview of Bell’s life and career. As always with the Dulwich Picture Gallery, it offers a beautifully laid out and informative opportunity to assess a rather neglected figure in English modern art.

Several things emerge from a slow perusal of the exhibition’s six rooms:

Blocky painting style

Bell’s earliest paintings reflect the sophisticated sheen of her teacher John Singer Sargent (note the telltale flecks of white on the vase to give the illusion of reflected light in Iceland Poppies 1908). But even then she was being exposed to the revolutionary influence of Picasso, Matisse and contemporary French painting. In fact right from the earliest portraits shown here, she seems more naturally to take a slabby, blocky approach to paintwork – instead of trying to capture the smooth contours of a fabric or a face, preferring to map out areas of solid colour, depicted with broad chunky brushstrokes. The rough, sketched-out feel, the deliberate lack of finish and the deliberate use of non-naturalistic colour are all suggestive of contemporary experiments in Europe, but are done with a distinctive English gentleness. Despite this, something of all her formal training comes out in the naturalistic outline and presence. these traits are exemplified in one of her many portraits of her novelist sister, Virginia:

Portraits of friends and family

In fact portraits of family and friends are a recurrent feature of Bell’s work and occupy one of the six rooms here.

They represent a decisive break with Victorian naturalism and Salon art, and a wholesale incorporation of the unreal colours, simplification of pattern, crude brushstrokes and awkward anti-aesthetic shapes found across the continent in the work of Gauguin, Die Brucke, the Fauves and so on.

The portraits of her sister are among the most persuasive or gripping. I think this is the best one, all the more powerful for its ‘modern’ blanking of the face, the part which should, traditionally, be the most detailed, revealing the sitter’s character etc. All that has been rejected in favour of an interest in composition and colour.

Virginia Woolf (c. 1912) by Vanessa Bell © National Portrait Gallery, London

Virginia Woolf (c. 1912) by Vanessa Bell © National Portrait Gallery, London

In the portraits, as in her other genres, the later work becomes noticably more conservative and straighforwardly figurative. Enjoyable, but in a different way.

Derivative

After a few rooms I felt I had seen a lot of these paintings before, or ones very much like them – most recently in the early-twentieth-century rooms of the excellent Courtauld Gallery, which contains works by Matisse, Derain, Vlaminck, Bonnard and other post-impressionists. (The term ‘Post-impressionism’ was in fact coined by Vanessa’s friend and sometime lover, art critic Roger Fry, as an umbrella term to cover developments in French art since Manet.)

This feeling was confirmed by many of the wall labels for individual paintings and by the (very useful) audioguide by exhibition co-curator Sarah Milroy. Both frequently pointed out the influence of the Nabis (a group name given to the French painters Vuillard, Bonnard et al), of Cézanne, of Matisse, of Picasso, on individual Bell works.

For example, it is hard not to see the largest work in the show, The Other Room (1930) as anything other than a homage to Matisse – the emphasis on design and areas of bright colour over detail, the interest in the design on fabrics (the curtains, the chair cover), the wilful indifference to anatomical realism in the human figures.

The Other Room (late 1930s) by Vanessa Bell © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett. Photo credit: Photography by Matthew Hollow

The Other Room (late 1930s) by Vanessa Bell © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett. Photo credit: Photography by Matthew Hollow

Landscapes

When Bell moved to the country, she took the urban continental style developed in her portraits (and the occasional, rare depiction of urban scenery) with her and applied it to numerous images of the landscape around the Sussex farmhouse. Many of these are strikingly composed in a kind of flat, blocky, post-impressionist style. They apply a continental mentality to the south of England countryside, a blockiness derived from Cézanne, along with the big slab brushwork of maybe Vlaminck or Derain.

Landscape with Haystack, Asheham (1912) by Vanessa Bell © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett

Landscape with Haystack, Asheham (1912) by Vanessa Bell © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett

Bell painted landscapes for the rest of her life and the selection here allows you to see how her style, over the decades, lost the modernist edge it once had, and reverted to a tamer figurativeness. Thirty years separate the painting above from the one below.

Flowers and vases

Bell painted flowers and vases throughout her long working life. There is a room devoted just to this subject. I found these a lot less interesting than the landscapes or portraits.

Once again, a careful examination of the chronology suggests a falling away of intensity in the later paintings. The later flower paintings lack oomph. Maybe they’re content. Happy.

Wallflowers by Vanessa Bell (c. 1950) © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett. Photo credit: © Christie's Images / Bridgeman Images

Wallflowers by Vanessa Bell (c. 1950) © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett. Photo credit: © Christie’s Images / Bridgeman Images

A note on colour and reproduction

Despite the brightness of many of the images included in this review, the colour which perhaps came over most from these paintings was a kind of turd brown, obvious in a work like The Conversation, or the double portrait of Frederick and Jessie Etchells (1912). A congeries of dark and murky browns, emphasised by the often plain wooden frames.

Without exception all the reproductions I’ve seen online – and even the reproductions on the hand-held audioguide – come out brighter and more colourful than the actual works themselves which, in the flesh, are mostly dour and drab, with a particular deep brown the prevailing tone. As one of the commenters I quote below put its – with some notable exceptions – ‘muddy’ gives a good summary of the majority of the paintings’ visual impact. In fact, the main visual takeaway from the show has been to make me notice just how much brown there is around us in everyday life – bricks of walls and houses, reddy-brown roof tiling, brown fences and so on.

The Bloomsbury group

More than enough has been written about the loose group of artists, writers, novelists and critics, economists and philosophers who lived in and around Bloomsbury Square near the British Museum, and also had connections with Trinity College Cambridge. They shared a desire to overthrow the stuffy prudery of their Victorian parents. The philosopher G.E. Moore in his vast Principia Ethica emphasised the centrality of honest personal relationships in his definition of ‘the good’ and ‘the good life’. This represented a massive break with the strongly social basis of Victorian ideals of Duty, Honour and so on.

Thus Bell’s wholesale rejection of the Victorian naturalistic tradition in painting can be seen as part of the wider rejection of Victorian values among her wider family and friends, and her ‘open’ marriage and the complex love lives of herself and her friends constituted a breath-taking departure from the norms of her parents and the stuffy Edwardian society she worked in.

The importance of Bloomsbury as a hotbed of new ways of seeing and living is emphasised throughout the exhibition – it is unavoidable since her portraits were all unofficial depictions of her family and close friends, and so the audiocommentary and wall labels insistently namecheck members of the Group, providing details of Bell’s lovers and associates. The show features a display case showing photographs of friends and family together in the garden of the Sussex house, which convey the casual informality of this impressive group of thinkers and artists.

Bell and feminism

The Canadian curator Sarah Milroy emphasises that Vanessa was a feminist pioneer. The first wall panel claims that Bell’s

‘portraits of women offer bracing encounters with female subjects given startling new force and agency.’

With the best will in the world, I couldn’t quite see this. Some of the earliest work captures an odd, alien effect which I enjoyed, for example the worrying intensity of the female figures in –

and many of the first room of portraits are deliberately unnerving and unsettling –

and amount to a full-frontal assault on Victorian aesthetics of female beauty –

The commentary tells us that the strange and ominous Studland Beach is considered one of her masterpieces. It certainly has a kind of Expressionist alienation and Symbolist portentousness. But I don’t see it as particularly giving the women depicted in it ‘agency and force’.

Studland Beach (c.1912) by Vanessa Bell © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett. Photo credit © Tate, London 2016

Studland Beach (c.1912) by Vanessa Bell © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett. Photo credit © Tate, London 2016

And these are exceptions to the majority of works here. The more frequent portraits of Virginia, Iris, Molly and so on, although modernist in form, are supremely calm and placid in tone. Her sitters are generally ensconced in a comfy chair in a nicely furnished living room – and the presence in the surrounding rooms of so many depictions of the peaceful Sussex countryside, not to mention the umpteen paintings of tasteful vases of flowers – the overall effect is a great feeling of calm and tranquility.

And the early experimentalism in this genre, as in the others, slips away as the later paintings become more conventional.

The final wall label repeats this feminist emphasis, which is clearly important to the show’s organisers:

‘One of Bell’s greatest legacies is her reimagining of the image of womanhood, with her powerful female bodies and countenances claiming pictorial space with a kind of brute force.’

Many of the female portraits from her glory years around the Great War are strange rebellions, and just focusing on the work from that specific period does emphasise their originality in the hidebound English tradition. But even the weirdest of them feel to me static and dreamlike. ‘Brute force’ is just not a phrase I would apply to Bell’s work.

As to subverting or revolutionising women’s roles, which the commentary claims she did, I also couldn’t really see it. Bell designed fabrics and painted vases of flowers; she moved to a lovely farmhouse in the countryside where she hosted charming weekends for her artistic friends; she was the loving mother of two adorable sons (Julian, who went to private school and King’s College before becoming a poet, and Quentin, who went to private school before becoming an art historian). I genuinely don’t see how this is revolutionary or subversive.

Possibly I don’t understand the times well enough, and the ongoing weight of conformity to Victorian gender stereotypes which most of her contemporaries endured. Maybe it was precisely Bell and her friends who opened the door to this kind of lifestyle, which eventually became so widespread as to become a cliché in succeeding generations.

The Omega workshop and abstraction

The works of Bell’s which approach nearest to the dynamic abstractions of her contemporaries on the English art scene – Wyndham Lewis, David Bomberg or C.R.W. Nevinson – derive from her period with the Omega workshop, set up by close friends Roger Fry and Duncan Grant, with the idea of producing fabrics and textiles based on their own designs. It opened in 1913, produced a wide range of domestic furnishings to modernist designs, before closing in 1920.

One of the six rooms is dedicated to Bell’s Omega phase, with patterns and designs for rugs, curtains and so on, for example the Design for Omega Workshops Fabric reproduced above. There are also examples of the book jacket illustrations she provided for the Hogarth Press, the small publishing house set up by Leonard and Virginia Woolf in 1917.

The biggest object in the show is the painted screen from this period, Tents and Figures – a big powerful work which conveys Bell’s interest in abstraction and bold geometric design – but with a power, you can’t help thinking, borrowed from Cezanne’s landscapes and the Fauvist use of African masks for the faces. It’s good but haven’t I seen these clashing diagonals and mask-faced figures before?

Tents and Figures (1913) by Vanessa Bell. A painted folding screen. Victoria & Albert Museum. © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett. Photo credit: © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Tents and Figures (1913) by Vanessa Bell. A painted folding screen. Victoria & Albert Museum. © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett. Photo credit: © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

 

Conclusion

I found many of the the early portraits novel and fresh, some of her odder stuff (e.g. The Conversation) bracingly disconcerting, the Omega workshop designs and artefacts an interesting variation on the Modernism of her contemporaries. I found a number of the landscapes evocative, especially the earlier, more modernist ones, and some of the still lifes prettily decorative.

But, in general, the paintings which make the biggest impact are the ones most obviously derived from Continental exemplars. Bell is an interesting artist, who produced lots of good work but maybe, in the end, is an example of the way hundreds, maybe thousands of artists in the 1910s, were gripped and liberated by wholly new ways of seeing and painting created by a handful of pioneers in France and Germany (the Expressionists, the Fauves).

One of the best paintings in the show is Nude with Poppies – admirable but… isn’t it almost entirely Matisse?

Nude with Poppies (1916) by Vanessa Bell © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett

Nude with Poppies (1916) by Vanessa Bell © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett

I worried that maybe I was failing to ‘get’ Bell, so I was reassured by these comments added to the online Guardian review of the exhibition:

  • “Looks very derivative to me. Not a patch on the originals, ie. Matisse, Mondrian, Gauguin, Munch”
  • “Not in the same league as the greats of the period, though, but still… pretty pictures.”
  • “I love her early work – the abstracts and experimental portraits. The later stuff is too muddy and repetitive, and the radical edge disappears pretty quickly.”
  • “Probably nice above the mantlepiece in a suburban villa. Nowt wrong with that, I’m a great lover of domestic art. But put her in a public gallery and her work withers to almost nothing. A very second rate artist.”
  • “you really have to work hard at liking them – and that’s because they are poor; badly done, lazily composed, arrogantly confident. “

Summary

So – some arresting and some eerie portraits, a few impressive semi-abstract landscapes, lots of vases of flowers. But with the nagging sense that they are very derivative, throughout. And – to step back a bit – the enormous social, political and philosophical upheavals which were going on at exactly this time (1914-1930) and are represented in the Royal Academy’s exhibition of Russian Revolutionary art – or the impact and experience of the two cataclysmic world wars as captured in, say, the recent big exhibition of Paul Nash at Tate Britain – are completely absent.

It is interesting that the curators chose to arrange the exhibition by theme and not chronologically. Is it because a chronological presentation would highlight the way the impact of the European post-impressionists set off a storm of creativity in Bell’s work during the 1910s – but also show how that energy faded in the 1920s so that by the 1940s and 1950s she is painting capable enough works, but many so bland they wouldn’t be out of place in a local jumble sale.

On the Steps of Santa Maria Salute, Venice (1948) by Vanessa Bell © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett. Photo credit: The Bloomsbury Workshop

On the Steps of Santa Maria Salute, Venice (1948) by Vanessa Bell © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett. Photo credit: The Bloomsbury Workshop

As ever with the Dulwich Picture Gallery, it’s a thorough, well-presented and elegant exhibition of a neglected artist, and so a welcome opportunity to find out more, to range over Bell’s work, to try and formulate a view. Maybe I’m missing something but for me, although it contains some arresting work and some surprises and convinces me that her name should be better known and more of her work displayed in public collections – it ultimately doesn’t persuade me that Vanessa Bell was in any way a major figure.

DPG promotional video

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Unintentional comedy There are three articles about this show in the Guardian, all of which complain that Bell has too long been in the shadow of the more famous Bloomsburyites. But ironically, the subtitles of all three articles define her in precisely the terms they claim to be trying to rescue her from:

  • “Vanessa Bell to break free from Bloomsbury group in Dulwich show – The sister of Virginia Woolf and lover of Duncan Grant is long overdue recognition as pioneer of modern art, say curators”
  • “Vanessa Bell: stepping out of the shadows of the Bloomsbury set – The artist, best known for her tangled love life and being Virginia Woolf’s sister, gets her first major solo show”
  • “Design and desires: how Vanessa Bell put the bloom in Bloomsbury – She was best known as a member of the Bloomsbury group and sister of Virginia Woolf – but will the first major show of her artwork change her reputation?”

The answer to the last question is surely – No, not as long as her biggest fans, her most knowledgeable curators and her supportive journalists, continue to define her in terms of her better-known sister, her numerous lovers and her social set – and not as an artist in her own right, which is surely how she should be presented.

Reviews of other Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibitions

Adriaen van de Velde @ Dulwich Picture Gallery

This is the first ever exhibition devoted to the Dutch Golden Age painter and draughtsman, Adriaen van de Velde (1636 – 1672). His reputation was high during his own short lifetime, and he was highly collectible through to the end of the Victorian era, but in the 20th century his reputation went into decline. In the twentieth century Dutch painting of the period came to be divided into a) really Dutch painting, featuring for example townscapes of Amsterdam or Delft, or b) Italianate Dutch – featuring Roman ruins and classical motifs among the cows and meadows. Van de Velde’s work didn’t easily fit into either category and so went into eclipse.

Adrian came from a family of painters, with both his father and brother – Willem van de Velde the Elder and Willem van de Velde the Younger – specialising in seascapes. Adrian broke with family tradition by concentrating on landscapes and also on human figures: in his short life he became well-known for his figure drawings and paintings – the catalogue claims he had ‘the greatest gift for drawing figures of any 17th century Dutch artist’. Thus he wasoften asked to paint the figures in other artists’ landscape paintings.

The exhibition features about 20 of the 170 paintings credited to van de Velde, alongside some 40 drawings, brought together from over 20 lending institutions and private collections. As usual it is spread across the Dulwich Gallery’s six exhibition rooms.

Room one features a selection of van der Velde’s landscapes to introduce you to themes and feel – most notably a series of paintings of the beach at Scheveningen, made when he was in his early twenties.

Figures on the beach at Scheveningen by Adriaen van de Velde (1660) Oil on canvas. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2015

The beach at Scheveningen by Adriaen van de Velde (1660) Oil on canvas. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2015

Surveying the room as a whole you get a sense of big blue skies, happy cumulus clouds, and then begin to enjoy the details. In The beach at Scheveningen I was taken with the birds silhouetted against the cloud centre-left, and a clutter of starfishes at the feet of the figure bottom-right. The curator made a point of emphasising the proto-romantic aspect of the figure with his hands behind his back, as if he’s looking out at a boundless expanse. Other beach paintings include:

Figures on the beach at Scheveningen by Adriaen van de Velde (1660). Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2015

Figures on the beach at Scheveningen by Adriaen van de Velde (1660). Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2015

I liked the dog centre foreground, mooching at some bones. And the way the whole foreground is in shadow. Light, daylight, the play of light, light on clouds, shadows, the sunset shades of evening light – these were abiding interests of his short career. Other landscapes in room one include:

Restful. Peaceful. Tranquil. Although there are animals, and sometimes depicted bounding and leaping, nothing disturbs the tranquil light playing on almost static figures, frozen in time. They are like paintings to meditate to.

Room two is devoted to a painting of a rural hut, with a woman working outside and some sheep sitting placidly – an image of  man in peaceful harmony with animals and the surrounding landscape.

The Hut by Adriaen van de Velde (1671) Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

The Hut by Adriaen van de Velde (1671) Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

This painting was chosen for a room of its own because, by a chance of history, quite a few preparatory sketches survive for it, giving us a rare insight into the working practice of a 17th century artist. There are two or three sketches of the hut itself, probably drawn on the spot, based on a real building, and done with considerable detail – the final painting keeps all the architectural detail and even the shadows exactly as per the sketches. Separate are sketches of the people and of the sheep and cattle.

There are several studies of this woman working at a basket.

<em>Seated woman with basket</em> by Adriaen van de Velde. Red chalk, 28.3 x 20 cm, Private Collection

Seated woman with basket by Adriaen van de Velde. Red chalk. Private Collection

It’s striking to learn that van der Velde used the pose and clothes of this figure in more than one painting: the room contains another painting, of a completely different location and setting, but featuring the same woman in the same pose. Striking to learn that the painters worked up ‘stock figures’ for use in different compositions.

Room three is devoted to more sketches. Here and in some other rooms I found myself strongly attracted to the preparatory sketches in red chalk, black chalk, or pen and ink. The final version of The Hut (above) is kind of finished, dark and saturated – whereas the sketches for it have a lightness and airiness more like the famous beach paintings. Thus I liked the combination of amazing detail and draughtsmanship, with a sense of openness and freedom and opportunity, given by a sketch like Herdsman and herdswoman with livestock by a stream.

Herdsman and herdswoman with livestock by a stream by Adriaen van de Velde. Pen in brown and black grey wash. Teylers Museum, Haarlem, The Netherlands

Herdsman and herdswoman with livestock by a stream by Adriaen van de Velde. Pen in brown and black grey wash. Teylers Museum, Haarlem, The Netherlands

In fifteen years he experimented and tried numerous genres, never departing far from landscape but trying out figures and ideas.

The commentary points out that the reclining shepherd, ‘in its elegance and exquisite use of red chalk prefigures the work of eighteenth-century French artists such as Antoine Watteau and François Boucher’.

But some of these sketches highlighted for me his most noticeable weakness, which is his inability to do faces – the heads are often too small for the bodies, and if they’re in any other pose than full frontal, they often look contorted. This is another reason why the sketches like Herdsman (above) have an edge over the paintings – they don’t even try to do features, they are happy to be indicative of faces, and so they work better.

Room four brings together religious works and finished drawings. Van de Velde married a Roman Catholic, which wasn’t illegal, but they didn’t publicise the fact – and there is a small religious strand in his work. Which I didn’t like.

  • St John the Baptist
  • The angel appearing to shepherds
The Angel appearing to the Shepherds by Adriaen van de Velde. Brush and brown ink over black chalk © The Trustees of The British Museum

The Angel appearing to the Shepherds by Adriaen van de Velde. Brush and brown ink over black chalk © The Trustees of The British Museum

Melodrama – the Baroque – was not, I think, his thing. I was happier with more secular, humanistic works like:

(In this room the curator who showed us round was keen to single out Summer landscape with wheatfield (1662) as a very experimental work – done entirely in watercolour without a trace of pen, obviously on location in the open air, centuries ahead of the Impressionists.)

Room five focused on pastoral works. The curator explained that in the 1660s van der Velde focused almost exclusively on this type of painting, probably because there was good money in it. What documentation we have for van der Velde includes lots of correspondence about debts and loans. He seems to have been harassed by money troubles. Hence lots of saleable landscapes.

Figures in a deer park by Adriaen van de Velde (c. 1665) Oil on panel. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, The Edward and Sally Speelman Collection

Figures in a deer park by Adriaen van de Velde (c. 1665) Oil on panel. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, The Edward and Sally Speelman Collection

Apart from the interest in human figures, which is what brings the scenes alive – what struck me is how many of them are painted at sunset, with the sunny blue skies and white clouds tinged with crepuscular pink. This was particularly obvious in the only two van der Velde paintings which featured winter scenes and the kind of ice-bound festivities we are so used to from scores of Dutch Golden Age painters.

Room six is labelled ‘Dutch Arcadia’ and brings together a handful of really massive paintings.

Landscape with cattle and figures by Adriaen van de Velde (1664) © Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Landscape with cattle and figures by Adriaen van de Velde (1664) © Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

At 125 by 167 centimetres, this is a big painting, but not as big as the monster of the show, Portrait of a Family in a Landscape (178 x 148 cm).

These monsters fetched big money in subsequent centuries but The portrait of a couple, in particular, to me, shows the weakness of his face painting, a weakness less exposed in the fabulous beach paintings and not called into question in his lovely pen or chalk sketches.

The whole show radiates an atmosphere of deep calm, tranquility, peace and harmony. This is a wonderful exhibition which is difficult to tear yourself away from…

The movie

As is customary, the Gallery has produced a short promotional video.

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Other Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibitions

Winifred Knights @ Dulwich Picture Gallery

This is a fabulous opportunity to soak yourself in the life and achievement of a strange and haunting woman artist, Winifred Knights, born in 1899, active in the 1920s and 30s, but who had stopped painting well before her sudden, tragically young, death from a brain tumour in 1947.

Knights was in many ways a pioneer, being an award-winning student at Slade School of Art and then the first woman to win the prestigious Rome Scholarship in Decorative Painting. Knights was born into a liberal circle of Fabian socialists and female emancipationists and her artistic style and biography bespeak her lifelong self-possession and determination.

Childhood and the Slade

Knights was born in the south London suburb of Streatham and attended the very posh James Allens School for Girls, where she first showed her gifts as a draughtsperson. The show opens with pencil drawings of figures and nudes done when she was 17, 18, 19, all of which are very impressive. She won a place at the prestigious Slade School of Fine Art, in the Bloomsbury district of central London, at the alarmingly young age of 16 and studied there from 1915 to 1917. Among the drawings the standout piece is this breath-taking female nude.

Full-length Seated Female Nude, three-quarter view by Winifred Knights (1917) University College London © The Estate of Winifred Knights

Full-length Seated Female Nude, three-quarter view by Winifred Knights (1917) University College London © The Estate of Winifred Knights

At the Slade she was taught by Henry Tonks, a stickler for accurate depiction of the human body and so perfect for Knights, who he came to regard as one of his finest students. (The tall strict Tonks had taught the generation just before Knights, who featured in a previous Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibition, A Crisis of Brilliance.) Throughout her life Knights did beautiful depictions of figures clothed and unclothed. Even in the 1930s, when her style had evolved far from naturalism, she was still capable of producing sketches like this stunning –

Appearance and self-portraits

From the start of her career through to the end she turned these talents on herself, producing scores of self-portraits and featuring images of herself in many of her paintings, sometime more than one image.

Self-portrait by Winifred Knights (1920) Pencil on tracing paper © Trustees of the British Museum. © The Estate of Winifred Knights

Self-portrait by Winifred Knights (1920) Pencil on tracing paper © Trustees of the British Museum. © The Estate of Winifred Knights

These self-portraits are all the more striking because Knights herself had very striking features -possessed of a long oval face which she accentuated with an austere hair-style, her long black hair parted in the middle and drawn tightly over her ears, revealing only the imaginative ear-rings she favoured.

The air of self-possession which comes over strongly in the photographs was emphasised or brought out by her long sweeping dresses, swathing her from throat to toes and covering the arms up to the wrists, which she made herself to her own designs from a variety of fabrics. She affected a big black broad-brimmed hat which features in many of the sketches and paintings.

Photo of Winifred Knights

Photo of Winifred Knights

Her own self-presentation was so distinct and striking that the final room in the show has a wall dedicated just to photos and portraits of her by other artists. These include:

  • Photo portrait by Paul Laib
  • Allegory by Colin Ginn, where Winifred is the tall figure in the characteristic high-necked blouse and her signature black Spanish hat, standing left

All this emphasis on her portraits and photos isn’t a peripheral matter, because Knights not only used herself in many of her compositions but based her increasingly stylised depiction of the human body on her own body shape – elongated, symmetrical, posed in geometric and formal attitudes.

Rural life and art

This move away from the sensuous curve of the life studies towards something more hieratic is apparent even in the first room.

Knight’s studies at the Slade were interrupted when she suffered a nervous breakdown after witnessing the vast explosion in the East End area of London’s docklands caused by a German zeppelin dropping bombs on a dynamite factory during the Great War in 1917.

She was sent to stay with her father’s cousin on the family farm in Worcestershire and this opened her eyes to a whole new world of rural life and work. The effect on her output was immediate, resulting in a piece like her Design for a Wall Decoration (1918). (She didn’t call her works ‘paintings’, she called them ‘decorations’ and had a lifelong interest in creating art which was decorative, more often than not commissioned to be placed in specific locations within specific buildings.) She meant the design for a wall decoration to be just that, a sketch for a much larger work to be painted onto a wall.

A work like Potato Harvest is surprisingly unlike the supple sensuousness of the pencil portraits. It is deliberately flat and angular, the figures almost deliberately amateurish and set against a backdrop which emphasises simple lines and shapes.

The Potato Harvest by Winifred Knights (1918) Watercolour over pen and ink on paper. Private Collection. © The Estate of Winifred Knights

The Potato Harvest by Winifred Knights (1918) Watercolour over pen and ink on paper. Private Collection. © The Estate of Winifred Knights

The show includes some very early book illustrations Knights did – specifically, this arresting illustration of Little Miss Muffet (note the use of her own self-portrait with the characteristic sharply parted hair and high-cut blouse) After returning to the Slade after the War she produced works like Leaving the Munitions Works.

Leaving the Munition Works by Winifred Knights (1919) Watercolour over pencil on paper. Private Collection. © The Estate of Winifred Knights

Leaving the Munition Works by Winifred Knights (1919) Watercolour over pencil on paper. Private Collection © The Estate of Winifred Knights

It has the lightness of a book illustration, with the geometric sharpness of the walls and pavement and houses and the washed-out water colours. This little part of the show makes you wonder whether Knights couldn’t have had a very effective career as a book illustrator, or pursued it as a sideline; but it was not to be.

The exhibition never fully explained to me what ‘Decorative Painting’ is, but it clearly is more interested in lines and shapes and patterns for their own sake rather than the depiction of any ‘reality’. In her final year Knights won the Slade Summer Composition Prize for Mill Hands on Strike, the stylised fields in the background reminding me of the landscapes of John Nash.

The Deluge

In 1920 Knights won the coveted Rome Scholarship with her huge and most famous work, The Deluge. The competitors for the prize all had eight weeks to paint a work on the same subject. Despite losing time when she was ill for a week, Knights won the prize with this stunning huge work. A whole room in the exhibition is devoted to it, and also contains the full-size cartoon of the work and the many preparatory studies she did for it. Every detail was very carefully planned and worked over.

The Deluge by Winifred Knights (1920) Oil on canvas © Tate, London 2016. © The Estate of Winifred Knights

The Deluge by Winifred Knights (1920) Oil on canvas © Tate, London 2016. © The Estate of Winifred Knights

Only a few years after the slight amateurishness of The Mill Hands, her style here is astonishingly finished and achieved. Note the way all the women wear long robes of the kind Knight herself wore – in fact the figure in the front is a self-portrait of the artist, while some of the other faces are based on friends and families. (The central figure carrying a baby is Knight’s mother and Knight’s then partner Arnold Mason modelled for the male figure beside her and also the man scrambling up the hill).

But it isn’t the faces you look at, it’s the extreme stylisation of the landscape and the geometric posture of the figures. It is a kind of naive Modernism, a variation on the Futurism or Vorticism of the pre-war years, except far more open and clear and simple. Maybe it is the post-war return to classicism, which took place across all the arts, as applied to cubism-futurism-vorticism, and so bringing a kind of clarity and order to the more chaotic pre-war modernism. Whatever it is, the longer you look at it, the weirder – and more compelling and powerful – it becomes.

The Rome scholarship and Italy

The scholarship paid for Knights to go and study in Rome from 1920 to 1925. Here she married fellow Rome Scholar Thomas Monnington (1924) and toured the Italian countryside, soaking herself in her beloved Early Renaissance frescoes. The way the frescoes were designed for specific locations, particular buildings, their decorative element is what she took and applied to a series of large-scale works over the coming decade.

The second half of the exhibition dedicates an room to each of these works. After The Deluge comes The Marriage at Cana (1923).

The Marriage at Cana by Winifred Knights (1923) Oil on canvas. Collection of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. Gift of the British School at Rome, London, 1957. © The Estate of Winifred Knights

The Marriage at Cana by Winifred Knights (1923) Oil on canvas. Collection of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. Gift of the British School at Rome, London, 1957. © The Estate of Winifred Knights

Here again design and decoration are everything, the starkly geometric lines of buildings and doorways and benches and even hedges, emphasising the static postures of the bodies, lined up in rows. Eerily, the faces – once again – are of friends and family and the painting of course features at least two self-portraits. But the faces, although more realistic than in The Deluge, are eerily blank. The picture doesn’t contain a shred of religious feeling – instead conveys a peculiar and unsettling sense of stasis. The figures are almost like zombies.

Each of the rooms dedicated to these big works contains some of the many preparatory sketches, drawings, cartoons and paintings Knights made for them and I found myself warming to the sketches far more than to the finished works. The initial pencil depictions of the figures have the supple humanity of her earliest portraits, but the way they’re hung lets you see all the life being slowly drained out of them as they become part of a larger, more abstract, schematic design.

Scenes from the Life of St Martin of Tours

I found this especially true of her last big work, a series of Scenes from the Life of St Martin of Tours commissioned for the Milner Memorial Chapel at Canterbury Cathedral. She worked on these for five long years, from 1928 to 1933, demoralised at one stage by disagreements with Sir Herbert Baker who commissioned it, almost abandoning the scheme, but eventually returning.

Scenes from The Life of Saint Martin of Tours by Winifred Knights (c.1928-33) Milner Memorial Chapel, Canterbury Cathedral. Reproduced courtesy of the Dean and Chapter, Canterbury Cathedral. © The Estate of Winifred Knights

Scenes from The Life of Saint Martin of Tours by Winifred Knights (c.1928-33) Milner Memorial Chapel, Canterbury Cathedral. Reproduced courtesy of the Dean and Chapter, Canterbury Cathedral. © The Estate of Winifred Knights

More than ever the composition is flat and stylised like an early Renaissance fresco, and yet the flatness of the composition contrasts oddly, jarringly, with the highly realistic depictions of the faces – Knights herself is the woman standing to the left of the kneeling saint (who himself has the face of Baker, who commissioned it, just as Renaissance works included the image of the work’s patron). The faces are realistic but oddly blank. It is like a science fiction disaster has come over all the people in the picture, draining them of all expression and warmth.

By this stage (this is the last room in the exhibition) I was used to being much more attracted to the sketches and preparatory works than to the finished products, which I find cold, flat and distanced. Her works hold you at arm’s length – just as the precise clothes, the formal hat and the emotionless gaze in most of her portraits do; whereas many of the sketches are warm and wonderfully evocative; take for example:

There are three small rectangular oil paintings in the final room, which are very rough preparations for the St Martin work, in which the faces are just greyish-brown ovals, but which somehow – in their unfinished and rough state – have more energy and emotion than the highly cleansed and clinical final product.

Conclusions

There is a huge gap in Winifred Knight’s work between the warmth and sensuous immediacy of the pencil drawings, some of her preparatory sketches, and the landscapes dotted throughout the show (I particularly liked the landscapes done around Roydon in Essex and at Cuckmere Haven in Sussex) – and the deliberately static, arrested and detached feeling of the really big compositions – her large ‘decorations’.

For me The Deluge is the most successful of these because it is the closest to the dynamism of the Futurist-Vorticist tradition, whereas the later master-works – The Marriage at Cana (1923), The Santissima Trinita (1924-30), Scenes from The Life of Saint Martin of Tours (1928-33) – have become too ‘decorative’ for my taste, too like the cold detachment of her beloved Renaissance fresco work.

Last years

Knights struggled over long periods with these later works and then, after the birth of her son in 1934, found herself bogged down with the duties of motherhood. By the time was broke out in 1939 she had virtually stopped painting and the war itself was a further demoralising period of frustration and privation. Thus the final room in the exhibition has the patchy feel of covering a long period (1928 to 1947) during which not a lot was produced.

Because it contains a wall of photos and portraits of her the last room prompts the thought that in one way, Knights was her own most striking work of art – the austere, intense and ascetic image she recorded in her many self-portraits and which others were also moved to record in photos and paintings, leaving a more lasting and somehow more intimate impression than many of her strange and unsettling decorations.

Self-portrait sketching at a table by Winifred Knights (1916). Watercolour over pencil on paper. Private Collection © The Estate of Winifred Knights

Self-portrait sketching at a table by Winifred Knights (1916). Watercolour over pencil on paper. Private Collection © The Estate of Winifred Knights

The video

Related links


Other Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibitions

Nikolai Astrup: Painting Norway @ Dulwich Picture Gallery

Nikolai Astrup (1880-1928) is one of Norway’s favourite painters, but a well-kept secret everywhere else. This typically thorough, persuasive, well-hung and attractive exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery is the first major show of his work in the UK and a wonderful opportunity to explore a rare and beguiling sensibility.

Astrup grew up in a remote part of coastal Norway, born in the village of Ålhus in Jølster, where his father was the Lutheran pastor. One of his early paintings shows a funeral procession to the local graveyard, set against the stunning scenery of the place. His father is the isolated figure at the front, still wearing the black robes and white tunic of the 17th century.

Funeral Day in Jølster by Nikolai Astrup (Before 1908) The Savings Bank Foundation DNB/The Astrup Collection/KODE Art Museums of Bergen. Photo © Dag Fosse/KODE

Funeral Day in Jølster by Nikolai Astrup (Before 1908) The Savings Bank Foundation DNB/The Astrup Collection/KODE Art Museums of Bergen. Photo © Dag Fosse/KODE

Nikolai was one of eight children. They grew up in a cold damp climate in a cold damp wooden parsonage, which was later condemned and demolished, but not before many of the Astrup children died of childhood ailments (scarcely believably, no fewer than three died in one traumatising week). Nikolai was a sickly child and spent a lot of time in bed, staring out of the windows.

The parsonage

The views of the lake and surrounding mountains, and the feeling of warmth and security, impressed themselves deeply on his childhood mind. When a young man he travelled to Paris, to Berlin, to study contemporary art, but his heart was always here in his native country, where he returned and lived and painted until his early death, aged 47 in 1928.

The Parsonage by Nikolai Astrup. The Savings Bank Foundation DNB/The Astrup Collection/KODE Art Museums of Bergen. Photo © Dag Fosse/KODE

The Parsonage by Nikolai Astrup. The Savings Bank Foundation DNB/The Astrup Collection/KODE Art Museums of Bergen. Photo © Dag Fosse/KODE

Repetition

Based in the same valley (he moved in adult life to a village across the lake) and haunted or inspired by those childhood memories, Astrup painted the same views, the same scenes, from different perspectives or viewpoints, over and again. Repetition with variations is a key aspect of Astrup’s art.

Thus the first room contains a selection of early works, the most impressive of which are half a dozen versions of the same view – from the lakeside looking back at the village nestling in the shadow of its hills. Seen from this vantage point the most striking thing is the pattern of bright yellow marsh marigolds forming a striking yellow diagonal across the canvas.

A Clear Night in June by Nikolai Astrup (1905-1907) The Savings Bank Foundation DNB/The Astrup Collection/KODE Art Museums of Bergen.Photo © Dag Fosse/KODE

A Clear Night in June by Nikolai Astrup (1905-1907) The Savings Bank Foundation DNB/The Astrup Collection/KODE Art Museums of Bergen.Photo © Dag Fosse/KODE

Night works

These marigolds appear in numerous paintings and prints and, in another characteristic motif, often at night. The parsonage at night, the village at night, the marsh at night, even housework, even sowing and planting crops, a surprising range of activities are depicted being done at night. And then you realise – it’s Norway, with a short growing season and long, long nights. Of course night life, in this broadest of senses, would be a subject for him. And hence the large number of shimmering mysterious scenes painted by moonlight.

Landscape

So Astrup’s art is entirely rural: there is nothing urban at all in these images, no towns let alone cities. Painting at the turn of the century, he is the opposite of the cosmopolitan Fauves and Expressionists and Futurists who were grabbing the headlines and who are the artists we mostly remember from that period. Astrup paints archetypal scenes of Norway – a lake, a snow-capped mountain and the brief spring and summer when the yellow marigolds and foxgloves blossom. A wet, green and often breath-taking country.

March Atmosphere at Jølstravatnet by Nikolai Astrup (Before 1908) Private Collection, Oslo. Photo © Anders Bergersen

March Atmosphere at Jølstravatnet by Nikolai Astrup (Before 1908) Private Collection, Oslo. Photo © Anders Bergersen

People

Astrup’s human figures are not his strong point and could be described as naive or clumsy – at one point the commentary compares some distant figures to Lowry’s matchstick men – elsewhere the commentary mentions his liking for the paintings of the super-naive French painter, ‘le Douanier’ Rousseau, which he saw in Paris. There is something unrealistic about the hang of his subjects’ bodies and the faces are vague or unseen. But in this he was not unlike the more experimental contemporary painters who were abandoning a Renaissance-inspired, scientific accuracy of human depiction, in favour of shaping the human form into emblems, patterns or motifs in an art work.

In this as in so many ways, Astrup’s work shimmers with the influence of his radical contemporaries, incorporates hints of it, but goes its own way. Take one of his most famous images, apparently a famous print in Norway, Foxgloves.

Foxgloves by Nikolai Astrup (1927) Colour woodcut on paper. The Savings Bank Foundation DNB/The Astrup Collection/KODE Art Museums of Bergen. Photo © Anders Bergersen

Foxgloves by Nikolai Astrup (1927) Colour woodcut on paper. The Savings Bank Foundation DNB/The Astrup Collection/KODE Art Museums of Bergen. Photo © Anders BergersenPicture 008

Would it be better without the two girls picking mushrooms? Are they emphasising the gawky naivety of much of the detail in the image, or helping place it in a naturalistic tradition? This, like many of the other paintings, gave me a warm, happy, childhood feeling. His occasional clumsiness, the imperfection of the figures, just doesn’t matter compared to the warmth of his vision.

Marriage and home

Astrup married Engel, a farmer’s daughter from across the lake. She was just 15 so he would be arrested, named and shamed and called out on social media these days, but in those less intrusive and judgmental times it developed into a full and loving marriage. After some renting and moving about, in 1913 he bought a plot of land and buildings on the opposite side of the lake from Ålhus, at a place called Sandalstrand.

In the following years he and his wife had no fewer than eight children. They built more buildings on the plot and planted and tended a wonderful garden. The roofs were covered in turves to keep them warm, on which the couple planted wild flowers. It looks magical and the exhibition includes enchanting black and white photos from the time showing loads of little children playing in what must have seemed a fairy land.

Here Nikolai designed, planted and tended his beautiful garden (reminding me of the continent-wide passion for gardening which is recorded in the Royal Academy’s current show, Painting the Modern Garden). In fact he became well known in the area for cultivating over ten varieties of rhubarb and from the tasty wine he made from them. The buildings and garden are there to this day and have been turned into a museum, named Astrupnet. The exhibition has some stunning photos of them.

Engel became a designer in her own right, showing an Arts and Crafts style interest in ‘the House Beautiful’, designing tapesties and carpets, curtains and rugs, ensuring the house was always full of flowers and fruit. Photos of the house show the very table cloth featured in this painting.

Still Life Interior by Nikolai Astrup

Still Life Interior by Nikolai Astrup

Mystery and symbolism

But often there is something extra in these paintings. Hints and suggestions of the uncanny. He was aware of the Symbolists working in Paris and of other mystical trends in contemporary art and philosophy. But like the other influences of the time – the bold colour of the Fauves, the nonchalant attitude to human figures of the post-Impressionists – they are only hinted at, and only in some of Astrup’s work. The naked figure in the painting above: is she one of Astrup’s daughters come down for a midnight feast? Or something more arcane: a pixie or sprite from local folklore?

Paganism

Probably the image in which he lets himself go to express his native mysticism or paganism is the much-repeated image of a pollarded tree willow by a lake. The exhibition shows four or five versions of it, painted on canvas, and then made into a woodcut. The willow tree is obviously turning into a… what? A troll? A goblin? A human figure? A distant relative of the screaming man in his older contemporary, Edvard Munch’s, most famous painting?

Spring Night and Willow by Nikolai Astrup (1917/after 1920) Colour woodcut on paper. The Savings Bank Foundation DNB/The Astrup Collection/KODE Art Museums of Bergen

Spring Night and Willow by Nikolai Astrup (1917/after 1920) Colour woodcut on paper. The Savings Bank Foundation DNB/The Astrup Collection/KODE Art Museums of Bergen

The (sensitive and informative) commentary tells us that Astrup himself pollarded the trees on his property and deliberately crafted them into semi-human shapes. It goes on to explain that the mountain on the horizon, painted in off-white, can be interpreted as the body of a naked woman lying on her back. He didn’t invent this, it’s actually what it looks like and was known in the vicinity as the ‘Ice Queen Mountain’.

The Ice Queen wasn’t alone. In another painting of an apparently mundane village scene with hill, the commentary points out how you can make out in the snow-capped hilltop the features of an old friend of Astrup’s who had recently died. Most striking of all is the painting known as Grain poles, in which a group of spindly straw poles have magically been given eyes, and one has a stick leaning against it, like the walking stick of an old man. The paganism, if that’s what it is, the sense that the landscape is somehow responsive to human presence, is so subtle it is barely there. It flickers at the edge of the paintings’ consciousness.

Midsummer bonfire celebration

The sixth and final room in the show explores this side of Astrup, his understated pagan feel for the world around him and which is embodied in his numerous paintings of the Midsummer bonfire festival, which took place in all the surrounding valleys. His strict Lutheran father tried to keep young Nikolai and the other children away from this obviously pagan event, with its licentious music and the scandalous mingling of men and women, dancing to the leaping light of the shimmering flames. What a scene it must have made, and what a variety of ‘naive’, colourful and stylised images Astrup has made of it.

Midsummer Eve Bonfire by Nikolai Astrup (After c.1917) The Savings Bank Foundation DNB/The Astrup Collection/KODE Art Museums of Bergen

Midsummer Eve Bonfire by Nikolai Astrup (After c.1917) The Savings Bank Foundation DNB/The Astrup Collection/KODE Art Museums of Bergen

This is one of the many images which exist as oil paintings and as woodcuts, giving you the chance to see which medium you prefer. Astrup depended for his livelihood on woodcuts and prints, hussling friends to buy them or publicise them. The exhibition features many of these woodcuts and explains in fascinating detail how they were made and the arduous technical and physical difficulties Astrup faced (not least because the heavy wood he laboriously carved his images into sometimes warped, making the process of pressing paper against it to get a full, clean image, sometimes impossible, and always difficult).

Since he reworked the same subjects over and over, you are able to directly compare the paintings and the woodcuts of similar viewpoints, ideas and motifs. Because I’ve always like strong lines and composition, I found myself warming to the woodcuts a bit more than the oils.

Midsummer Eve Bonfire woodcut

Midsummer Eve Bonfire woodcut

Favourites

Among so many to choose from, I liked:

  • A clear night in June (See top of this review) The commentary points out that you can see the silhouettes of two large figures in the foreground, which Astrup subsequently painted over. Maybe he lacked confidence in his human figures; maybe he realised the landscape was enough. Whatever the reason, they shed a typically ambiguous ghostly presence onto the scene.
  • Growing season in Sandalstrand A later image which he recycled as black and white and colour prints, an image of simplicity, peacefulness and beauty.
  • The moon in May
  • Birthday in the garden A party of laughing children. Note Engel’s dress which, like many, she made herself.

I wanted to feature several more but none of them were available on the internet.

The contemporary scene

Compare and contrast Astrup with similar scenes from a) the lingering 19th century figurative tradition:

and b) the bold new avant-garde of someone like Cezanne

to see how Astrup reconciles the influences of his time, simplifying the human figure, using unnaturally bright and primary colours, but not departing in feel from a faithful naturalistic depiction of the scene in front of him. One of the pleasures of his paintings is the way they hold the powerfully conflicting influences of turn of the century art in such a delicate balance. They foreshadow much of the simplified rural art of between the wars, the childlike, book-illustration quality to be found in this country in the work of Paul Nash, or simpler, in Eric Ravilious.

Conclusion

Astrup is not an instant classic. You don’t go Wow yes! at the sight of many of his paintings, and it is easy to pick out flaws of composition and colouring, especially of the people. But cumulatively, this gorgeous exhibition gives you a powerful sense of the landscape and climate and customs and quiet beauty of this under-explored part of the world and of a unique artist who ‘recorded Norway for the Norwegians’, but also left a legacy of lovely, colourful, life-affirming pictures for all of us.

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The Amazing World of M.C. Escher @ Dulwich Picture Gallery

This is the first ever British exhibition of the work of Dutch graphic artist, Maurits Cornelis Escher (1898-1972), well known for the mind-boggling optical illusions he created in scores of prints, reproduced in posters, book covers and throughout the culture. Over 100 prints are gathered together along with an extremely informative audio commentary and fascinating wall labels.

Parents and patterns

Escher’s father was a civil engineer and he himself started out training as an architect before switching to graphic art. In 1922 he visited Spain and the Alhambra where he was smitten by the beauty of Islamic tiles, tiles laid in a vast variety of geometric patterns. This introduced the notion of tessalation, where tiles or geometric elements are arranged with no gaps to create a continuous surface. In the first room the commentary gives a useful list of the character of Escher’s prints, whatever the subject matter:

  • pattern
  • the whole surface covered equally, with no fading at the edges or foregrounding of key elements
  • minute attention to detail

Italy

As to subject matter, from the start he showed an interest in optical effects. His 1922 trip to Spain also included Italy and it was here he met his wife, settled and lived for a decade, spent months on trips to remote out of the way mountain villages, and created scores of images of those Italian towns built on the edges of hills and steep slopes.

The first room has lots of these showing his interest in a) buildings b) buildings and landscape together considered as semi-abstract patterns c) odd points of view, from either high up or low down.

M.C. Escher, Hand with Reflecting Sphere (Self-Portait in Spherical Mirror) (January 1935) Lithograph Collection Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, The Hague, The Netherlands

M.C. Escher Hand with Reflecting Sphere (Self-Portait in Spherical Mirror) (January 1935) Lithograph. Collection Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, The Hague, The Netherlands. © 2015 The M.C. Escher Company-The Netherlands.

During the later 1920s and 1930s he produced a wide range of these landscapes along with figurative prints of the images around him, including a number of self-portraits, though refracted through his interest in oddities of perspective.

Weak faces

One thing we learn from the exhibition is Escher wasn’t so good at the human figure or face. In the image above the striking thing is, obviously, the distorting effect of the glass globe he’s reflected in. The detail of the hand is marvellous. And the head… it’s simplistic, cartoon-y. Later there are several close-ups of a human eye, presumably the artist’s own, featuring the reflection of a skull in the pupil. Reminds me of the kind of thing you see in sixth form art departments, very capable but trite.

Compare and contrast with Balcony from 1945, displaying a similar interest in the distorting effect of a convex mirror, but  this time applying it – surreally – to a building. Semi-abstract tessalations excellent – buildings good – people, not so hot.

Back to northern Europe

It was the growing impact of Mussolini’s Fascism on Italian life, the fact his sons had to wear semi-military uniforms to school and so on, that drove Escher to leave Italy in 1935, moving first to Switzerland, then to Brussels, then early in the war to the Netherlands, where he lived the rest of his life.

The exhibition suggests that, deprived of the – itself slightly fantastical – scenery of Italy and now immersed in the grey, cloudy, flat and dull landscape of northern Europe, Escher sought solace or expression in an increasingly inner vision.

A classic example of this is one of his most popular prints, Day and Night (1938), where you can see landscape changing into abstract pattern, combined with the trick or device of having one half of the picture in day, one in night. The commentary says it was very popular and Escher was pestered by agents to run off more prints. Eventually he became so sick of it, he started raising the price to deter buyers, but that only made them more keen. Human nature. It also points out a good example of Escher’s attention to detail. In the town on the left, it is daytime and the streets are filled with tiny figures going about their work. In the night-time town, there are no figures, everyone is at home which is why the lights are on.

M.C. Escher, Day and Night (February 1938) Woodcut in black and grey Collection Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, The Hague, The Netherlands

M.C. Escher Day and Night (February 1938) Woodcut in black and grey
Collection Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, The Hague, The Netherlands. © 2015 The M.C. Escher Company-The Netherlands.

Another classic from this period is Still Life and Street (1937). It takes a moment for the viewer to realise that the perfectly naturalistic street scene has been set on top of a table next to some books and a pipe.

Throughout the exhibition runs Escher’s sense that there is something absurd about trying to convey three dimensional images in a two dimensional medium. This recurring fascination with the absurdity of his own craft is reflected in Reptiles, where miniature lizard-crocodiles clamber out of a two dimensional illustration, over the artist’s desktop clutter, and back into the original flat image. It’s funny but (as the saying goes) is it art? Or a higher form of cartoon?

M.C. Escher, Reptiles (March 1943) Lithograph Collection Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, The Hague, The Netherlands. © 2015 The M.C. Escher Company-The Netherlands.

M.C. Escher, Reptiles (March 1943) Lithograph
Collection Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, The Hague, The Netherlands. © 2015 The M.C. Escher Company-The Netherlands.

Shape over symbol

It’s interesting that Escher eschewed any symbolism in his works. There is no psychology or politics or personal messages or any meaning of any kind. He wanted to amaze and entertain. On the one hand this is admirable. On the other, it might contribute to the sense that the images are somehow not serious. Continuing that thought, the exhibition points out that the kind of shapes he used – for example the frequently-found lizard motif – is little to do with their ‘meaning’, everything to do with their usefulness in creating tessalations and patterns, as the title of this one suggests – Regular Division of the Plane with Reptiles/ Lizards.

M.C. Escher Regular Division of the Plane with Reptiles/ Lizards no.56 (November 1942) Collection Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, The Hague, The Netherlands. © 2015 The M.C. Escher Company-The Netherlands.

M.C. Escher Regular Division of the Plane with Reptiles/ Lizards no.56 (November 1942) Collection Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, The Hague, The Netherlands. © 2015 The M.C. Escher Company-The Netherlands.

The pathos of hands

This is one his great images, Drawing hands from 1948, after the horrors of the war were over. It shows the same interest in the 2D/3D conundrum as the lizards from 1943, combined with the jokey circularity of a hand drawing the first hand drawing the second hand etc. For my money this is the only work among the 100 here which really qualifies as a ‘work of art’ because of the extraordinary pathos of the hands, drawn with a challenging insight into age, mortality, experience and suffering.

The commentary emphasises that Escher was uninfluenced by all the art movements of his day, was a one-man art movement and more interested in the precise draughtsmanship of late medieval artists. Well, I’d suggest a kinship between this image and Albrecht Dürer’s famous image of praying hands.

M.C. Escher, Drawing Hands (1948) Lithograph Collection Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, The Hague, The Netherlands

M.C. Escher Drawing Hands (1948) Lithograph
Collection Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, The Hague, The Netherlands. © 2015 The M.C. Escher Company-The Netherlands.

The 1950s

By the 1950s he had found his voice and the works from this period include many of his most famous visual paradoxes. He became more widely known and attracted the attention of a number of mathematicians who collaborated and shared ideas about mathematical patterns and paradoxes. There is a lengthy explanation of Escher’s relationship with British father-and-son mathematicians, Lionel and Roger Penrose, inventors of the Penrose Stairs, which Escher then used as the basis for Ascending and Descending (below).

M.C. Escher, Bond of Union (April 1956) Lithograph Collection Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, The Hague, The Netherlands

M.C. Escher Bond of Union (April 1956) Lithograph
Collection Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, The Hague, The Netherlands. © 2015 The M.C. Escher Company-The Netherlands.

He perfected the depiction of impossible buildings, buildings which contain two perspectives at the same time, the most famous being the image of the figures going up a flight of steps arranged in a square which never seems to end, but there are plenty of other examples of the same mind-bending games with perspective.

  • Up and Down (1947) At the bottom you are looking at the scene from below, but due to some alchemy of the arrangement of the images by the time you’ve scanned to the top you are looking at the same image from above. The commentary points out that if you had two copies and laid them one on top of the other they would join seamlessly. the series is potentially infinitely replicable.
  • Relativity (1953)
  • Convex and Concave (1953)
  • Ascending and Descending (1960)

Note his early training as an architect. Note, also, the cartoon, storybook-illustration level of the human figures.

M.C. Escher, Belvedere (May 1958) Lithograph Collection Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, The Hague, The Netherlands

M.C. Escher Belvedere (May 1958) Lithograph
Collection Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, The Hague, The Netherlands. © 2015 The M.C. Escher Company-The Netherlands.

1960s and fame

In 1961 a book of his work was published and, as the decade of drugs and experiments with consciousness and mind-altering experiences unfolded, his work was taken up, turned into posters adorning a million student bedrooms, became part of pop culture. The commentary tells us that Mick Jagger contacted him, asking if he could design a gatefold cover for a Rolling Stones album, and Stanley Kubrick got in touch wondering if he’d be interested in collaborating on 2001 A Space Odyssey.

No, was the short answer. Escher’s methods, the painstaking creation of minutely-detailed woodcuts, lithographs, linotypes and engravings, took up a tremendous amount of time, and also he was a shy, private and meticulous man.

Favourites

Having walked back and forth through the exhibition three or four times, I found myself impressed but not ‘taken’ by the famous optical puzzle pictures. I also didn’t like the many images consisting just of patterns, whether abstract geometrical ones or ones made out of tessalations of lizards or frogs or seagulls.

If I had the money I would like to own two or three of his most figurative works. I absolutely loved Freighter, one of many prints he made from several months spent on a freighter steaming around the Mediterranean in 1936. I can’t find a copy of it large enough to do justice on the internet, but in the flesh it is large and bold and totally convincing. Its clarity of line reminded me of the beautiful draughtsmanship of the classic Tintin cartoons.

And, in the last room of the show, among more geometric trickery, was a cluster of prints showing that, right up to the end Escher retained an interest in purely figurative subject matter and a particular interest in water, including Rippled Surface, a lino cut from 1950, and Puddle. This said more to me than all the puzzles and perturbations. It is a northern landscape of mud and water, a wintry landscape. For some reason it reminds me of the line drawings in Tove Jansson’s moomintroll books. It has the hard black outlines of a good book illustration. For me it opens a doorway into a far more mysterious world than the neverending staircases, but a world Escher also knew and beautifully captures.

M.C. Escher,Puddle (February 1952) Woodcut Collection Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, The Hague, The Netherlands.

M.C. Escher Puddle (February 1952) Woodcut
Collection Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, The Hague, The Netherlands. © 2015 The M.C. Escher Company-The Netherlands.

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Ravilious @ Dulwich Picture Gallery

This is a truly wonderful, inspiring and joyous exhibition, with a smile in every image. It brings together over 80 of Ravilious’s watercolours into six rooms packed with warmth, gentleness, love of the visible world and the English landscape.

Potted biography

‘Eric William Ravilious (22 July 1903 – 2 September 1942) was an English painter, designer, book illustrator and wood engraver. He grew up in Sussex, and is particularly known for his watercolours of the South Downs. He served as a war artist, and died when the aircraft he was on was lost off Iceland, aged 39.’ (Wikipedia)

Eric Ravilious, Anchor and Boats, Rye, 1938, Watercolour and pencil on paper, Private Collection

Eric Ravilious, Anchor and Boats, Rye, 1938, Watercolour and pencil on paper, Private Collection

Room 1 Relics and Curiosities

His father ran an antique shop in Eastbourne. He grew up among curiosities and quirks. He was intrigued from boyhood by broken teapots, bicycle wheels, derelict machinery, abandoned vehicles, very 1930s, very WH Auden:

The shafts are filled with water; the mosses grope over the washing-floor.
I look through the broken arms of waterwheels: I see lambs feeding.
Trucks lie overturned; an old rail patches a gap in the wall
Rain falls through the gaping roof of sheds; it falls on the obsolete inventions and structures…

But whereas Auden and his crew described the wrecks of industry laid waste by the great Depression, with the political implication of the need to overthrow the existing order (the world which produced Kim Philby and the other Cambridge spies), Ravilious’s images are always eccentric, domesticated, charming, but hinting at strange coincidences and meanings.

Well-suited to the illustrations he made for a number of books, the famous High Street (1938) with architectural writer James Richards, and the characteristically quirky The Hansom and The Pigeons: Being Random Reflections Upon the Silver Jubilee of King George V.

After experimenting with different media in his early 20s, with a sustained interest in mural designing, Ravilious finally settled on watercolour and pencil as his tools. The images in this first room are selected to show his interest in things: ships, biplanes, an abandoned caravan, a bus in a field, a propellor on a truck, funnels on a ship, ropes and lines of all descriptions: stays and hawsers and painters and cables and wires.

Eric Ravilious, Bomb Diffusing Equipment, c.1940, Watercolour and pencil on paper, Private collection, on long term loan to Towner, Eastbourne.

Eric Ravilious, Bomb Defusing Equipment, c.1940, Watercolour and pencil on paper, Private collection, on long term loan to Towner, Eastbourne.

The images are strong clear compositions, conveyed in firm outlines, with lots of cross-hatching and shading to create the sense of space and light and volume and perspective.

The comedy of objects and the pathos of objects, without their human owners somehow bereft, and yet also absurd. A tea set abandoned on a table.

Eric Ravilious, Tea at Furlongs, 1939, Watercolour and pencil on paper, The Fry Art Gallery

Eric Ravilious, Tea at Furlongs, 1939, Watercolour and pencil on paper, The Fry Art Gallery

2 Figures and Forms

Ravilious is famous for his landscapes, not for his people. He generally avoided the human figure and did hardly any portraits. The show does include a handful of sketches of faces and friends but by and large confirms this impression. The famous railway carriage is empty; the tea table is abandoned.

With the startling exception of a series of 10 lithographs he made of life on board a submarine (HMS Dolphin from Gosport, Hampshire), part of his war artist work. He went out on it for three weeks and the lithographs could not help but feature the sailors and officers who worked in this constrained, hot, stifling space. The vivid palette and the subject matter of these works reminded me of the over-colouring of the Technicolour movie, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea (1954).

Precise and detailed as children’s book illustrations, they give the same warm memories as Edward Ardizzone’s images, the ones which illuminated the big hardback books my mother borrowed from the library. There are all kinds of nostalgias going on in Ravilious’s pictures.

3 Interiors

Bedrooms, sick bay, operations rooms, map rooms, corridors, train compartments – generally with windows opening out onto views.

Once the war started he did a series about operations rooms for the Battle of Britain and then of the new Control Room opened under London.

By far the most striking, and possibly Ravilous’s most famous image, is the Train Landscape (1939), which manages to be an interior and a landscape, at the same time.

Eric Ravilious, Train Landscape, 1940, Watercolour and pencil on paper, Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums Collections

Eric Ravilious, Train Landscape, 1940, Watercolour and pencil on paper, Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums Collections

Apparently, he planned to visit and paint every chalk figure in Britain and had made a good start when the project was curtailed by war. The image is powerful for all sorts of reasons, nostalgia being a big one: I remember the heaviness of the old wooden doors and the strength needed to pull down the windows. Along with that goes nostalgia for a clean landscape unruined by cars, traffic and industrial farming. And then the childlike simplicity, the book illustration clarity of the image. But there is also that element of mystery: where are the people? Why is the number 3 written so large, as if it’s an illustration in a counting book? Unlike Paul Nash’s overt surrealism, in Ravilious there is almost no sign of a strangeness which is only hinted at, which you could blink and miss.

4 Place and Season

He had a strong feel for landscape: this involved the colour of the soil, the types of trees and agricultural useage, the English seasons (mostly cloudy or raining). The commentary says he and his close friend, fellow illustrator and designer Edward Bawden, really did discuss the colour of the soil, the shape of the hills, all the geographic factors which give a landscape its specificity.

Ravilious is most associated with the chalk downland of the the Sussex Downs, epitomised, maybe, by this watercolour, The Downs in Winter (1934). Initially not the most striking of his images, the commentary spent a while explaining aspects of it, and I also benefited from overhearing two ladies discussing it, until I began to see deeper into it and depths opened like a door.

  • First, it’s winter. No glamour, no nostalgia for endless summers. It is cold and rainy, as England mostly is.
  • Apparently there as an Iron Age fort on top of the nearby hills, as there so often is in England, and that lends new meaning to the two prongs of the farm equipment, which go from light at the bottom to dark at the top until they seem like the horns of a bull, maybe of an Iron Age aurochs, a pagan image.
  • It is dark in the foreground and the hills are dark but the middle space of the field is light, like ploughed chalk fields often are, but also as English landscape is when the sun comes out from behind clouds.
  • For the first time I realised the importance in his technique of lines: of rows (here justified by the ploughing), of cross-hatching (in the sky to indicate rain), of the patchwork of fields created by a grid design. They aren’t the merciless lines of Modernism, they are curved and mellowed like the landscape, like the human body, but nonetheless lines are used all over his pictures to convey space and distance and perspective.

5 Changing Perspectives

Ravilious was very conscious of his predecessors in the attempt to paint the English landscape (in watercolour, of course, not oil) and therefore he and his circle were drawn not to the obvious oil painters Gainsborough or Constable, but to the more mystical landscapes of the watercolourist Samuel Palmer; and of course he had been taught by the great Paul Nash at the Royal College of Art.

Eric Ravilious, The Wilmington Giant, 1939, Watercolour and pencil on paper, ©Victoria and Albert Museum

Eric Ravilious, The Wilmington Giant, 1939, Watercolour and pencil on paper, ©Victoria and Albert Museum

Of course I started out looking at the giant carved into the chalk downland, but the audio-commentary drew my attention to the wire fencing, reminding me of the perennial appeal to Ravilious of man-made objects, human artefacts. And the wire obviously bespeaks 20th century realism – on any country walk you can’t help seeing lots of fences, wire, barbed wire and locks and meshes and grilles. But it went on to highlight the artful composition of the piece, the way the elements of reality are deployed: the lines of wire frame but don’t obscure the chalk man. And then the fence post leaning in from the right of the frame – actually the largest element in the composition – gives a subtle balance to the white and green on the left. The more you look at it the more dramatic it becomes.

The commentary quoted a contemporary reviewer who said the image makes you feel ‘the wiriness of the wire’ and that immediately became a catchphrase with which to explain much of the rest of the show. Where the wire joins the fence post it it is doubled back and retied round itself, something I’ve seen hundreds of times in real life, but never before captured in art or prose.

  • Cuckmere Haven (1939) Now I’d noticed the cross-hatching affect (in The Downs In Winter), I saw it everywhere: in the meadow in the foreground which looks like snakeskin; in the regular patterning of the flint stone wall running along the top of it, and in the mesh affect of the sky. Now I understand better why the central image of the serpentine river appears so clean and clear – because it is set against the dense cross-hatching of the top third and bottom third of the painting.
  • The Causeway, Wiltshire (1937) I feel I’ve walked there a hundred times, along a track carved into a gentle hillside which opens up a view down a valley.
  • The Westbury Horse (1939) Obviously the framing of the composition is vital, but now I notice the horizontal lines giving depth and perspective to the hillside the horse is carved out of, the different type of finer, vertical hatching used to imply grass in the foreground, the grid affect of the grey fields of the plain stretching out, and the long loose dark lines used to create the louring clouds in the sky. Now I’ve noticed it, I’m seeing the numerous different way he uses lines, shading, cross-hatching, mesh and grid patterns to create his affects.
Eric Ravilious, The Westbury Horse, 1939, Watercolour and pencil on paper, Private Collection, on long term loan to Towner, Eastbourne.

Eric Ravilious, The Westbury Horse, 1939, Watercolour and pencil on paper, Private Collection, on long term loan to Towner, Eastbourne.

Techniques he then took with him into his war work from 1939 till his tragically premature death in 1942.

  • Storm 1941 The cross-hatching conveying rain across sunlight.
  • Convoy Passing An Island The cross-hatching of the barrels, the metal struts of the wire fencing.
  • In a lot of these later works the composition is strongly based around straight lines leading into the distance, such as Rye Harbour – the line of telegraph wires, echoed by the differently-angled line of beacons on the right, in fact a large number of different lines going straight back to the vanishing point.
  • Hurricanes in Flight England as the familiar patchwork quilt below, but the interest isn’t in the smoothly streamlined WWII fighters, instead the composition is dominated by the twin wings of the biplane creating an emphatic sense of perspective, along with a very Ravilious-esque delight in their complex of struts and cables, intricate and quirky.
Eric Ravilious, Hurricane in Flight, c.1942, Watercolour and pencil on paper, Private Collection

Eric Ravilious, Hurricanes in Flight, c.1942, Watercolour and pencil on paper, Private Collection

6. Darkness and Light

A room devoted to Ravilious’s use of light effects. There was a big, early and uncharacteristic composition of fireworks in London, and some copying Samuel Palmer’s experiments with depicting landscapes lit by moonlight. But the mature works experiment with the impact of modern electric light at night, or with the sun appearing at harsh dawn (rather than romantic pink sunset). Apparently he liked to paint with the sun shining into his face, making the world praeternaturally clear, hard-edged, whited out.

  • Beachy Head An orgy of cross-hatching, shading and lines arranged to create a stark image of a lighthouse at night.
  • Paddle Steamers At Night
  • Norway 1940 The low Arctic sun making diamonds across the sky and sea.
  • The Lifeboat The sinuous curve of the lines of the lifeboat and the wiry wiriness of cables, hawsers and tackle scattered throughout the image.
  • Dangerous Work At Low Tide In these late works it is as if the cross-hatching and diamond affects of the pencil have become an end in themselves. Mind you, this image is best viewed from the other side of the room, from where it breathes the cold wintry light of dawn over wet sand.
Eric Ravilious, Dangerous Work at Low Tide, 1940, Watercolour and pencil on paper, © Ministry of Defence, Crown Copyright 2015

Eric Ravilious, Dangerous Work at Low Tide, 1940, Watercolour and pencil on paper,
© Ministry of Defence, Crown Copyright 2015

Ravilious’s images range from a kind of book illustration simplicity through warm evocations of the soft southern English landscape, innumerable sweet snapshots of 1930s England, to a mysterious few which hint at depths beneath the charm, an unknown meaning and purpose behind the smiling surfaces.

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Other Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibitions

Emily Carr @ Dulwich Picture Gallery

This is the first UK exhibition dedicated to Emily Carr (1871-1945), according to the curators one of Canada’s most beloved and famous artists although, like most Brits, I’d never heard of her. Carr never married and had no significant relationships, instead dedicating her life to recording the vanishing monuments of the native peoples and the wild landscape of her native British Columbia. It is a fascinating show, the latest in Dulwich Picture Gallery’s long track record of small but wonderfully inspiring exhibitions.

Carr was the fifth daughter of a merchant who was able to fund her art studies. Her parents died when she was young, and she had to struggle against her elder sisters’ wishes that she find a good husband and settle down – instead she was determined to pursue her artistic ambitions, travelling to San Francisco to study art in the 1890s. Later in the decade and through into the early 1900s she was in London studying painting, with a spell at St Ives too. So she was starting her career right at the birth of Modern Art, as the Fauves were exploring more violent colour contrasts, as Picasso and Braque were about to invent cubism, as the pace of artistic experimentation accelerated in the years just before the Great War.

Emily Carr in San Francisco, age 21 or 22, c. 1893, Image H-02813, courtesy of the Royal BC Museum, BC Archives

Young Emily Carr in San Francisco, age 21 or 22, c. 1893 (courtesy of the Royal BC Museum, BC Archives)

The Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibition wing has six rooms, so Carr’s career is divided into six sections. For some artists this six-fold division is used to highlight different subjects or media, but for Carr it really brings out how strikingly different her style and approach was at different points of her career.

The forest

The first room shows many of her early tree and forest paintings. She had a special affinity for trees, especially the tall, muscular cedar trees which characterise British Columbia. They are like twisting columns among the sombre dark-green foliage. A classic example here is Tree Trunk (1931). Among the studies of trees is a famous image, Indian Church (1929).

Emily Carr, Indian Church, 1929, oil on canvas. ART GALLERY OF ONTARIO, Bequest of Charles S. Band, Toronto,

Emily Carr, Indian Church, 1929, oil on canvas (Art Gallery of Ontario, Bequest of Charles S. Band, Toronto)

Reproductions don’t convey how intense, claustrophobic and brooding this painting is. The commentary explains there was just such a church in the woods but Carr brought the forest much closer than it was in real life, bunched the gravestones closer up against the building, and made the church striking white against the threatening greens of the encroaching forest. It symbolises her white, European ancestry and artistic heritage, set against the fathomless depth and power of wild, unEuropean nature.

The commentary made the telling point that though she did hundreds of tree paintings, there are no leaves. Being familiar with the botanical drawings of Marianne North among others, or the feathery leaf technique of Thomas Gainsborough, I realise this was a very deliberate choice. Her foliage comes in blocks. It is similar in feel to the cubist or vorticist feel for blocks, cubes, rectangles, cones. Nature, for Carr, is forces and directions of energy, rather than fragile detail.

Totem poles

In the 1860s a wave of epidemics, mostly smallpox, swept through the native people of British Columbia, decimating them. Entire villages were wiped out and their buildings, artefacts and striking totem poles left to rot. This was the strange abandoned landscape Carr grew up into in the 1890s. Once she had discovered her first native villages she became obsessed with recording them before they decayed forever, reclaimed by the forest. The result was hundreds of watercolours and oil paintings of totem poles and the other statuary of the natives.

All of these have, I imagine, considerable historical and anthropological importance, but almost all of them are striking and hauntingly beautiful.

Emily Carr, Tanoo, Queen Charlotte Island, BC, 1913, Image PDP02145 courtesy of Royal BC Museum, BC Archives, Canada.

Emily Carr, Tanoo, Queen Charlotte Island, BC, 1913 (Image courtesy of Royal BC Museum, BC Archives, Canada)

In this, one of the most famous images, note the use of Cezanne-like inch-long rectangles of paint, the blocky effect, visible all over, but particularly in the clouds and especially in the grass.

and many many more images of totems. Two things stick out for me. 1. These are ruins. No humans anywhere. The same accusation could be made as was made against the English Lake District poets and painters – Nature is a refuge from the messiness of human life, human relationships, above all from the world of work, earning the money to buy the food to stay alive. 2. Like all ruins, they come with a ready-made emotional appeal. (cf Tate’s exhibition on Ruin Lust). The gaunt accuracy of her works contrasts with the actual crumbling decay, poignantly.

Late 20s modernism

Then she packed it in. Sometime during the Great War Carr stopped painting in oil or watercolour and took to other things, dog breeding, according to the commentary, which includes photographs of her looking very happy surrounded by her animals. She had got no recognition, sold nothing, made no money. Decided to call it a day.

Some 15 years later, in 1927, a gallery out East decided to have an exhibition about paintings of the Canadian landscape and someone suggested Carr. She sent nearly 30 works and found herself famous! She was invited to attend the exhibition and met the Group of Seven young painters who’d come together to forge a native Canadian style. She found herself praised as a forebear of their attempts and, amid the adulation and praise, was encouraged to take up her brush again.

What she produced from 1927 through the mid-1930s is strikingly different from the earlier work. It is much more modernist, even Vorticist in feel, the subject matter (nature, trees, forest, totem poles – no people) more chunky, stripped down to create solid blocks of thick colour.

Emily Carr, Big Eagle, Skidigate, B.C. c. 1930, Watercolour on paper, (Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, Donated in memory of Dorothy Plaunt Dyde)

Emily Carr, Big Eagle, Skidigate, B.C. c. 1930, Watercolour on paper (Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, Donated in memory of Dorothy Plaunt Dyde)

Wispy

Just as you’re getting your head around Carr’s progression from late-Victorian realist watercolour through Fauvism and cubism influences to the blocky 1930s style – you walk into the 5th room to discover a dozen or more paintings in a completely different style. The subject is still nature, forest, trees, but she has invented a new technique, based on using petrol to soften the paint once it is on the canvas and stir and spread it around in spools and wisps of colour. This experimental new technique creates a light, flowing style utterly unlike the heavy dark blocks of colour from earlier in the 1930s.

Emily Carr, Happiness, 1939, Oil on paper (University of Victoria Art Collection, Gift of Nikolai and Myfanwy Pavelic)

Emily Carr, Happiness, 1939, Oil on paper (University of Victoria Art Collection, Gift of Nikolai and Myfanwy Pavelic)

Note the emphasis on the play of light and the effect of wind, light and wind on slender trees – completely different from the heavy, static, claustrophobic images of the forest which the exhibition opened with. Many of them have the expressionist swirling of paint around the main subject reminiscent of Edvard Munch.

Final room

The final room shows yet another change in style: her last paintings, done in the late 1930s/early 1940s, are of light over the sea, beaches, the coast. According to the catalofue, ‘euphoric sky paintings, rhythmic light-filled beach scenes and clear-cut landscapes’. It would be nice to end on a positive note, but for me these don’t work. The technique they all adopt of thick lines of paint – presumably an attempt to catch the infinitely subtle play of light on water, or sunlight between clouds – fail.

Emily Carr, Untitled (Seascape) 1935, Oil on paper mounted on board (The Art Gallery of Greater Victoria)

Emily Carr, Untitled (Seascape) 1935, Oil on paper mounted on board (The Art Gallery of Greater Victoria)

Far more interesting are the couple of large paintings of decorated canoes drawn up by the sea or lake shore. The first is an accurate but rather insipid watercolour from 1908. Next to it hang two large oil paintings from 1912, just 4 years later, but a world away. Carr has been exposed to the Fauves and taken on board their experiments with colour: using colour not in relation to the ‘real world’ but in relation to the other colours in the palette and being used in the painting: so that shadows become purple or green, hillsides can be red or yellow (lessons about colour conveyed so brilliantly in the National Gallery’s recent exhibition about Making Colour). Gauguin in Canada.

Emily Carr, Indian War Canoe (Alert Bay), 1912, Oil on cardboard (The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Purchase, gift of A. Sidney Dawes)

Emily Carr, Indian War Canoe (Alert Bay), 1912, Oil on cardboard (The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Purchase, gift of A. Sidney Dawes)

Native Indian artefacts

In two of the rooms, in addition to the paintings there are display cases containing 30 or so native Indian artefacts, carved objects and tools made by the peoples whose ruined villages and totems Carr recorded so dedicatedly. They included: helmet with bear, gull mask, raven ladle, octopus spoon, sheep horn feast dish, frog mask, soul catcher, shaman’s amulet, dance wand, oyster catcher rattle.

Female mask with labret, c.1820-1830, Carved alder wood mask (©The Trustees of the British Museum)

Female mask with labret, c.1820-1830, Carved alder wood mask (© The Trustees of the British Museum)

The audio commentary had many of them explained by James Hart, a Haida hereditary chief and master carver; there was one particularly long piece where he described the myths surrounding the important figure of the raven in native mythology.

The aim, I think, is to give a sense of the Indian culture which she was painting and I certainly thought they had a tremendous depth and elegance. The historical and cultural authenticity of the native artefacts, as well as the resonance of mythical imagination behind the objects which depicted faces of animals, shamans and totems, are like gateways into a really strange and alien universe of belief and practice.

They give you a sense of Carr’s startling ambition to try and match and capture their weird insight. In her day she was a bold and imaginative pioneer, heroic in her determination to seek out the ruined villages, sometimes hundreds of miles from the nearest white settlement, to stay there day after day, often on her own, trying to catch the secrets of these haunting objects by the equally mysterious process of covering thin canvas surfaces with strokes of coloured oil.

Towards the end of her life she described her adventures among the native peoples and their art in a best-selling book, Klee Wyck.

Harold Mortimer-Lamb, Emily Carr in Her Studio, 1939, silver gelatin print, (Promised Gift to the Vancouver Art Gallery from Claudia Beck and Andrew Gruft)

Emily Carr in her studio, 1939, by Harold Mortimer-Lamb (Promised Gift to the Vancouver Art Gallery from Claudia Beck and Andrew Gruft)

This is a great show about a fascinating, strong and uncompromising artist. It’s been extended to mid-March. Go see.

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Other Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibitions

Art and Life: Ben Nicholson, Winifred Nicholson, Christopher Wood, Alfred Wallis, William Staite Murray, 1920 – 1931 @Dulwich Picture Gallery

The artists

The painter Ben Nicholson was born in 1894 into a highly very artistic family, the son of two successful painters. In 1920 he met and married Winifred Roberts (b.1893), also a painter. In the early 20s they met the potter and ceramicist William Staite Murray (b.1881) and regularly exhibited their paintings along with his pots, and a little later the younger painter Christopher ‘Kit’ Wood (b.1901) with whom they became good friends and went on painting holidays together. In 1928 in St Ives Ben and Kit met the self-taught ‘primitive’ painter of the sea, Alfred Wallis (b.1855).

Ben Nicholson, 1921 - circa 1923 (Cortivallo, Lugano), Oil on canvas, 43 x 60 cm, Tate, London 2013 © Angela Verren Taunt 2013. All rights reserved, DACS, Photo © Tate, London 2013

Ben Nicholson, 1921 – circa 1923 (Cortivallo, Lugano), Oil on canvas, 43 x 60 cm, Tate,
London 2013 © Angela Verren Taunt 2013. All rights reserved, DACS, Photo © Tate,
London 2013

The show

This lovely exhibition, curated by Ben’s grandson the art historian Jovan Nicholson, brings together some 80 paintings and pots into a detailed examination of the personal and artistic relationships between these five artists during the 1920s. It is low-key and thoughtful and genteel and restrained. It is not loud or revolutionary or Modern. It is very English.

Winifred Nicholson, Flowers in a Glass Jar, c. 1925, Oil on canvas, 47 x 34 cm, Private Collection, © Trustees of Winifred Nicholson

Winifred Nicholson, Flowers in a Glass Jar, c. 1925, Oil on canvas, 47 x 34 cm, Private
Collection, © Trustees of Winifred Nicholson

It was an interesting era. Just after the Great War which they’d been too young to fight in, their generation wanted to say ‘goodbye to all that’ and, like Robert Graves, be artists together living in a cottage with a wood-burning range, close to the earth, honest and true, away from the pomp and circumstance and bombast which had led to the great catastrophe.

Their home at Banks Head in Cumberland had no electricity till after the second war. Its rawness is captured in Winifred’s painting of their only source of heating and cooking, the old metal ‘range’, titled Fire and Water (1927).

Little England

The reviewer for the Telegraph (link below) said he fell asleep half-way through the show. He was expecting too much. This isn’t huge and sumptuous like Veronese at the National Gallery or big and bold like Matisse at Tate Modern. It is along similar lines to last year’s fascinating Crisis of Brilliance show at DPG. By showing the interconnections and cross-fertilisations of a group of not-really-A-list artists it conveys a much broader sense of the art world – and the wider world – of the time.

William Staite Murray, Vortex, c. 1926-9, Stoneware Bowl, H 8.3, D 19, © York Museums Trust (York Art Gallery)

William Staite Murray, Vortex, c. 1926-9, Stoneware Bowl, H 8.3, D 19, © York
Museums Trust (York Art Gallery)

‘Fun’

In his guided tour the curator Jovan repeatedly used the word ‘fun’ and his enthusiasm was infectious. He explained how Ben and Winifred often painted the same view side by side, Ben interested in form, Winifred in colour. They corresponded and exhibited with Staite Murray, discussing form and shapes and patterns which were appropriate in paintings and pottery.

The fun comes from examining the works created by the artists and teasing out the network of subject matter and influences and, to this end, paintings of the same views or subject are hung next to each other.

Form and flowers

A striking early example is Ben’s first abstract painting from 1924, a slightly weedy response to the post-cubist explosion of abstraction taking place on the Continent in the work of, say, Mondrian or Matisse. But it changes our reading of the image to know that it was painted at the same house in Chelsea, and probably is based on the same view out the window, as Winifred’s King’s Road, Chelsea 1925. The two are hung next to each other and the more you look, the more Ben’s abstract brings out the abstract element in Winifed’s painting, and the more Winifred’s helps you see the originally figurative elements in Ben’s.

Northrigg Hill

Another example comes in the third room where the show hangs a painting each by Ben, Winifred and Kit of the same view in Cumberland, giving the opportunity to directly compare and contrast. Winifred probably wins for her subtle use of colour. Jovan pointed out that she has made the lane snaking to the horizon pink, an unlikely colour for a Cumbrian road, but one that fits with the colour scheme.

Apparently, Ben was obsessed by questions of form and had competitions with Kit Wood to sketch or paint the same view using as few lines as possible. Winifred thought about colour and Jovan tells the story of her discovering a vibrant new shade of pink which she told her husband about – and which he promptly used in a still life.

Ben Nicholson, c. 1925 (Jamaique), c.1925, Oil on canvas, Private Collection / © Angela Verren Taunt 2013. All rights reserved, DACS, Photo: © Tate, London 2013

Ben Nicholson, c. 1925 (Jamaique), c.1925, Oil on canvas, Private Collection / © Angela
Verren Taunt 2013. All rights reserved, DACS, Photo: © Tate, London 2013

English modernism

They were conservative. They were attached to England and a vision of England which sought to combine Continental modernist elements without the violence, without sacrificing the interest in beautiful landscape of their native tradition. If you view it from a 21st-century cosmopolitan point of view, lots here can look weedy, tame, genteel, twee. So don’t look at it that way. Usually I dislike and despise the insipid decorativeness of the Bloomsbury artists of the post-war era. But this exhibition won me over and I began to really enjoy the paintings.

I liked Ben Nicholson’s scoring of the surface of the canvas in paintings like Still Life LL or Still Life with Jug, Mugs and Bottle. Of this latter painting Jovan pointed out that the top of the goblet is in front of the jug, but the bottom of the jug is in front of the goblet, a discreet trick of perspective. Jovan said that whenever he looks at a Ben Nicholson he always looks first for the humour. I personally was excited by the rough scraping of the paint surface in a piece like 1928 (Porthmeor Beach no. 2), which was apparently scoured with sand from the beach in the view. I think it is a really great painting, striking and forceful.

Staite Murray

Staite Murray was his own man, older (b.1881) and a successful teacher at the Royal College of Art. He was Buddhist and much influenced by the Chinese Sung dynasty ceramics that had begun to appear in London in the 1920s. His interests in a restrained, domestic and organic type of modern decorativeness led to the exchange of many letters and ideas and designs and motifs, with Ben especially, and they exhibited together numerous times in the 1920s.

William Staite Murray, Persian Garden, 1931, Stoneware Jar, H 56.5 cm, D 30.5 cm, © York Museums Trust (York Art Gallery)

William Staite Murray, Persian Garden, 1931, Stoneware Jar, H 56.5 cm, D 30.5 cm, ©
York Museums Trust (York Art Gallery)

 

Each room in the exhibition has some examples of Murray’s work and, like all the works here, it would be easy to dismiss them as a bit traditional, a bit dull – but the closer you looked, the more you saw the care and attention to detail which had gone into their creation. I liked the one with cascades of falling arches down the side – Cascade – and a tall, striped pot humorously title named The Bather (1930) because of its similarity to the classic one-piece bathing costume of the time.

There’s a lightness and humour to most of the exhibits here, a calmness and humanity, which  is more appealing the more you look and allow it to influence you.

Winifred Nicholson, Cyclamen and Primula, c.1922-3, oil on board, 50 x 55 cm, Courtesy of Kettle’s Yard, University of Cambridge/ © Trustees of Winifred Nicholson

Winifred Nicholson, Cyclamen and Primula, c.1922-3, oil on board, 50 x 55 cm,
Courtesy of Kettle’s Yard, University of Cambridge/ © Trustees of Winifred Nicholson

Christopher Wood

The possible exception is the work of Kit Wood, younger than the others, which has an intensity created by his use of black and very dark paint. Here he paints Winifred’s favourite subject, the vase of flowers on a windowsill with a landscape behind it but how different the affect is, the dominant colour being the black of the windowsill picked up by the black flowers, the black top of the boat and the black hedgerow in the left distance.

Christopher Wood, Anemones in a Cornish Window, 1930, Oil on canvas, 40.6 x 48.2 cm, © Leeds Museums and Galleries (Leeds Art Gallery) / The Bridgeman Art Library

Christopher Wood, Anemones in a Cornish Window, 1930, Oil on canvas, 40.6 x 48.2 cm,
© Leeds Museums and Galleries (Leeds Art Gallery) / The Bridgeman Art Library

Kit doesn’t share the general sweetness & light and it comes as no surprise to learn that he had the classic young man’s tempestuous relationship with a lover/muse (the Russian-born Frosca Munster) of whom he painted a large primitive nude – The Blue Necklace – which is completely out of keeping with most of the rest of the show where the human figure is very rare. Still, it was surprising to learn that he was an opium addict who struggled to find a supply in the isolated rural locations where the artists liked to live and paint.

Alfred Wallis

Kit and Ben were staying in the tiny village of Feock in Cornwall (and had made a number of wonderful paintings of the nearby Pill Creek) when they went on a day trip to St Ives and met the self-taught mariner and ‘primitive’ painter Alfred Wallis. After an adventurous life at sea, Wallis (b. 1855) had taught himself to paint using ship paints applied to irregularly-shaped cast-off pieces of wood or card with holes knocked in the top so he could hang them on his walls with nails.

Alfred Wallis, Four Luggers and a Lighthouse, c. 1928, Oil on card, 16.5 x 26 cm, Private Collection, on loan to mima, Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art

Alfred Wallis, Four Luggers and a Lighthouse, c. 1928, Oil on card, 16.5 x 26 cm, Private
Collection, on loan to mima, Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art

Wallis’s paintings are almost all of ships and the sea and St Ives with a confident disregard for perspective or realism. They are wonderfully liberated and expressive, and in some ways Wallis the amateur is the real star of this show – his style was much stronger, more fully-formed and rooted, than Ben or Kit or Winifred’s and he had an immediate impact on them.

Again the exhibition carefully related works together for us to compare and contrast, in this case the Wallis originals next to the paintings Kit and the Nicholsons created immediately afterward meeting him and seeing his work. The impact is clear and obvious in, for example, this work by Ben which is one of the standout pieces in the show.

Ben Nicholson, c.1930 (Cornish Port), oil on card, 21.5 x 35 cm, Courtesy of Kettle’s Yard, University of Cambridge/ © Angela Verren-Taunt 2013. All rights reserved, DACS

Ben Nicholson, c.1930 (Cornish Port), oil on card, 21.5 x 35 cm, Courtesy of Kettle’s
Yard, University of Cambridge/ © Angela Verren-Taunt 2013. All rights reserved,
DACS

Typically, Christopher Wood brought a much darker palette and emotional turmoil to his paintings of the same setting. In the deliberate primitivism of his depiction of the human figure, in the use of a figurativism which ignores the previous 500 years of academic painting, Wood here reminds me of LS Lowry.

Christopher Wood, Herring Fisher’s Goodbye, Oil on board, 37 x 59 cm, 1928, Private Collection

Christopher Wood, Herring Fisher’s Goodbye, Oil on board, 37 x 59 cm, 1928, Private
Collection

Ben championed Wallis’s work back in the London galleries where he and his friends exhibited, and continued to correspond with Alfred, some of their exchanges being included in the exhibition and catalogue.

Epilogue

Just as with the Crisis of Brilliance show there is a sad epilogue describing the artists’ careers after this lovely decade:

Ben met Barbara Hepworth, fell in love with her and began the process which led to his divorce from Winifred in the 30s, although they stayed friends to the ends of their lives. Under Barbara’s influence the interest in abstract form which you can see peeping out of many of these paintings came to the fore and by the mid-30s he had become pretty much the face of British modernist painting. The Telegraph critic says it was a mistake to include a mid-30s abstract piece at the end of the show as it makes everything leading up to it look like juvenilia. I disagree. I think many of the paintings from the 20s are more rewarding, varied and interesting than the milk-and-water abstract white cutouts which he developed in the 30s and which I’ve always thought were poor copies of more virile European experiments.

Winifred ducked out of fame and fortune and accepted a lesser career, spending part of the time in Paris, hobnobbing with the cream of the avant-garde, but continuing to explore the subtle use of colour in her lovely still lifes of flowers.

Kit killed himself. Isolated in St Ives from a regular of the opium to which he was addicted he began to smoke the dregs of his supplies, bringing on worse hallucinations and psychological problems exacerbated by his intense relationship with the Russian muse. He took his life in August 1930, aged just 29.

William continued experimenting with ceramics, building his own kiln and patenting the design. But he happened to go to visit relatives in Rhodesia in 1939 just before the second world war broke out and ended up staying and, as Jovan said, mournfully, he never potted again.

Alfred Despite the eloquent support of Ben and Winifred, Wallis sold few paintings and lived in poverty until he died in the Madron workhouse in Penzance in 1942.

In this characteristically gentle painting, Winifred gives a primitive impressionist account of a sailing boat on the water which also shows her and Ben’s son in the foreground playing at a rockpool with a toy sailing boat which, Jovan told us, Alfred gave the couple as a gift – an image of English pastoral and human kindness which exemplifies the spirit of this life-enhancing exhibition.

Winifred Nicholson, Seascape with Two Boats, 1926, Oil on Canvas, 82.5 x 101.7cm, Courtesy of Kettle's Yard, University of Cambridge ©Trustees of Winifred Nicholson

Winifred Nicholson, Seascape with Two Boats, 1926, Oil on Canvas, 82.5 x 101.7cm,
Courtesy of Kettle’s Yard, University of Cambridge ©Trustees of Winifred Nicholson

Art and Life continues at Dulwich Picture Gallery until 21 September.

Related links


Other Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibitions

David Hockney prints @ Dulwich Picture Gallery

Disappointing. But then I’ve never liked Hockney. I’ve been to innumerable exhibitions, including the big one at the Royal Academy in spring 2012. Big, bright and empty, was my sad conclusion.

The show

It took 20 minutes to stroll through the half dozen small rooms at the DPG. In the first were the earliest prints from his 1960s student days. In the next room a series of etchings illustrating the homoerotic poems of Cavafy: Hockney’s Cavafy etchings. Drab. Passionless.

Elsewhere were big portraits of friends of the artist’s in early 1970s California eg Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy. Ugly. Very English in their graceless lumpiness.

Some prints of flowers, one or two of which I liked. Hockney flower print. One of his two brightly coloured pet dachshunds. The last room contained massive overcoloured recent prints, very much like the vast paintings of Yorkshire landscapes which clogged up the RA two years ago, only without their naive landscape appeal. Several horribly garish prints of the atrium of a hotel in Mexico, some others with wackily-shaped frames.

Why Hockney bores me

What they all have in common, for me, is:

  • it’s all figurative; it’s all about conveying what he sees
  • but all done in a sketchy, distorted, 6th form/art school way; the figures are scratchy, unappealing, unattractive; the architecture is distorted, the swimming pools are… abstract, cold, empty. Only the dogs and some of the flowers bore an attractive resemblance to their subject
  • I struggle to think of another artist whose images of the human figure are so unerotic, unsensual, passionless and blank e.g. Portrait of Cavafy II
  • throughout the works are jokey references to other artists, including some tiresome homages or whatever to Picasso, all which serve to highlight how empty and subjectless Hockney’s own art is
  • which leads on to the blah in the catalogue and the interviews/articles always emphasising what a ceaseless explorer and pioneer and innovator he is: Polaroid art, computer art, ipad art and the rest of it – who cares: is it any good?

Define ‘good’. Well: passionate, engaged and engaging, exciting. Pretty much none of the works on display here engaged, excited, amused, entertained, stimulated, frightened or moved me. Or even made me look at them twice. Yep another horrible portrait from the 70s. Yep another so-so print of a vase of flowers. Yawn.

In the final room one of the better pieces Matelot Kevin Druez 2  is obviously, as a study, as a piece of representational art, good, very good. But would you buy it, would you have it in your living room, can you even be bothered to look at it for more than 30 seconds, do you want to come back and look at it again? No.

Is anything at all in this exhibition beautiful? No.

The video

The DPG’s video is a triumph of marketing: the use of rostrum camera and close-up on detail of the prints makes them all look much more powerful and attractive than they actually seemed, hanging limply on the big white walls of the gallery. Maybe his art is best seen in videos and TV documentaries…

Related links


Other Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibitions

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