Helene Schjerfbeck @ the Royal Academy

This exhibition takes you on a strange and mysterious journey through the career of one of Finland’s most eminent artists, Helene Schjerfbeck, from entirely conventional late-Victorian naturalism like this:

Self-portrait by Helene Schjerfbeck (1884-85) Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum. Photo by Hannu Aaltonen

Via a kind of haughty modernism like this:

Self-portrait with a black background by Helene Schjerfbeck (1915) Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum. Photo by Yehia Eweis

To the incredibly bleak, post-Holocaust self-portraits of her last few years.

Self-portrait with Red Spot by Helene Schjerfbeck (1944) Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum. Photo by Hannu Aaltonen

Synopsis

Helene Schjerfbeck lived from 1862 to 1945. She is one of Finland’s most eminent artists. This is the first ever UK exhibition ever devoted to her work. It contains some 65 portraits, landscapes and still lifes, selected from the estimated 1,000 works that she produced in a career spanning nearly seventy years.

Early career and studies

Helene was the third child of an office manager in the Finnish state railway’s workshop. The family were lower-middle-class Swedish-speaking Finns. At the age of 11 some of her drawings were shown to a successful painter who arranged a free place for her at the drawing school of the Finnish Art Society. Aged 11! She won a prize every year for the four years she was there.

In 1877 she moved to a private academy in Helsinki, learning to handle oil paints. In 1880 her painting Wounded Soldier in the Snow won a prize from the Finnish Senate which allowed her to go and study in Paris. She made friends and visited Pont-Aven the emerging art colony where Gauguin was later to work.

In 1887 she travelled to St Ives in Cornwall at the invitation of a fellow art student who had married an Englishman. She returned again a year later and made many paintings, enjoying the English coastal light.

The first picture in the show is Two Profiles from 1881, when she was just 18. It took my breath away. The oil paint is laid on in swatches and clearly visible strokes which give a bracing energy and dynamism to what is, on the face of it, a passive image. This reproduction is terrible. In the flesh it is much more bright and airy.

Two Profiles by Helene Schjerfbeck (1881)

All the other early paintings have a tremendous confidence with oil paint, she handles it in the loose expressive way I associate with John Singer Sargent. They all deal with light and sunny Cornish landscapes or healthy looking peasants and workers and family and friends. Chocolate box. The rural settings and confident if (when you look closely) roughly applied paint remind me a bit of the farm paintings of George Clausen.

View of St Ives by Helene Schjerfbeck (1887)

The largest painting from this early phase is The Convalescent from 1888. It is a rich slice of late-Victorian tweeness, complete with a blue-eyed little girl. It was exhibited at the Paris Salon of that year and bought by the Finnish Art Society. It is tremendously proficient. Look at the glass jar on the right of the table. What immense talent she had for this kind of naturalism.

The Convalescent by Helene Schjerfbeck (1888)

Travelling and teaching

There is then a hiatus in the exhibition. The next painting is from 1905. What happened in between? She travelled and got a job as a teacher.

Travel In 1892 the Finnish Art Society commissioned her to travel to St Petersburg and make copies in the Hermitage Museum of Frans Hals, Diego Velasquez and other Old Masters for the Finnish Collection. In 1894 she visited the Austrian national museum to make more copies, then travelled on to Italy to make copies of Renaissance masters.

Teaching Schjerfbeck got a job as a teacher in the Finish Art Society’s drawing school. She was, by all accounts, extremely exacting. Complete silence in the classroom.

Ill Schjerfbeck was always unwell. As a child she had fallen and broken her hip leading to a permanent limp. She fell ill in 1895, took sick leave till 1896, and was again on extended sick leave in 1900. In 1902 she resigned her teaching job and went to live with her mother in the small town of Hyvinkää north of Helsinki. There is a series of portraits of her mother which hint at the psychological tensions between them. Nonetheless her mother’s small state pension meant she didn’t have to work.

Schjerfbeck ended up living in Hyvinkää for fifteen years, corresponding with friends and asking for copies of newspapers and magazines. During this time she used local girls and boys and men and women as models for her painting.

The mature style

All of this goes some way to explaining the radical change which came about in her art. Compare the two women and the little girl in the paintings above with the next one in the exhibition, from 1911.

Schoolgirl by Helene Schjerfbeck (1911)

The idea is that Schjerfbeck no longer needed to compete – to bow to current taste in order to sell things to the Salon or to compete for prizes or sales. Now she could experiment with her vision – and it is completely unlike anything from the 1880s and 90s.

Now the outlines of figures becomes misty and vague. The faces lose the precise features they formerly had. Detailed description disappears in favour of blocks of abstract colour. And the palette becomes deliberately more narrow, so that the compositions seem more aligned, more focused, creating a sense of luminosity.

Many of the paintings are deliberately unfinished, leaving patches of canvas showing through. And in many of them, she either scores the surface of the paint, or lets it dry then scrapes away at it, repaints a new layer, dry, and scrapes it back again – the idea being to mimic the aged and worn affect of the many frescos she had seen on her trip to Italy.

Flappers

The Great War came but didn’t greatly effect her art. Instead this rather misty style continues unabated into the between the wars period. Surprisingly, many of them reflect the fashions of the era. She subscribed to fashion magazines such as Marie Claire and was interested in the slender gender-neutral look of the ‘flapper’, and she also created fictional characters or types. Almost all her models were local working class people but she used them as the basis for novelistic ‘types’ such as The Skiier or The Motorist or, one of the most vivid images, the Circus Girl.

The Circus Girl by Helene Schjerfbeck (1916)

Note the vague unfinishedness of the whole image; the sketchiness of the outline; the sense that it has been scored or marked by charcoal lines; the tonal unity of the yellow background and yellow skin, the pastel top and golden choker. And note the unexpected surprise of the big red lips with their cartoon-style catchlight.

There are 20 or more paintings which are all variations on this theme, and in which the face is more or less stylised. In some it becomes a shield-shaped mask, verging on the abstract and obviously indebted to the experiments the great modernists had made earlier in the century, copying actual tribal masks held in museums of Ethnography.

A handful of other works deliberately reference El Greco who she particularly liked, he was, I suppose, another eccentric or outside-the-mainstream artist.

I love drawing, I love clear defined outlines, but I also love it when they’re not finished, incomplete and hint at a perfection they don’t try to achieve. I love the suggestion of struggle in a work of art. Hence I love lots of sketches and drawings by Degas. And hence I loved lots of Schjerfbeck’s misty, unfinished, gestural works. Is there some Picasso’s harlequin period in this one?

Girl from Eydtkuhne II by Helene Schjerfbeck (1927) Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum. Photo by Hannu Aaltonen

The self portraits

Schjerfbeck painted her first self-portrait at age 22 and her last at 83. The exhibition has a room devoted to them, with seventeen examples placed in simple chronological order, and they create quite a harrowing effect, as shown at the top of this review, progressing from sweet and gentle young woman, in her naturalistic phase, to the haughty modernist of between the wars and then, in the 1930s and 40s, to an awesomely bleak and unforgiving vision. During the 1930s the familiar lineaments of her face are subjected to distortions, her cheekbones melting, her mouth becoming a dark wound. The only colour is grey, shades of grey, grisaille, the only tones left when all the colours of life have drained away.

Self-portrait with Palette by Helene Schjerfbeck (1937)

But these turn out to be only the build-up for the final half dozen self portraits painted during the Second World War as Schjerfbeck, by now an old woman and ill with the cancer which would kill her, morphs into a gaunt, grey, death-haunted skull-face which foreshadows the era of the Holocaust, the atom bomb, and the harrowed writings of Samuel Becket.

Green Self-Portrait – Light and Shadows by Helene Schjerfbeck (1945)

What an extraordinary pilgrimage. And what a distinctive, individual, strange and troubling journey she takes us on. This is a remarkable exhibition.

Promotional video

Curators

Rebecca Bray, Anna-Maria von Bonsdorff, Sarah Lea


Related links

Reviews of other Royal Academy exhibitions

Félix Vallotton: Painter of Disquiet @ the Royal Academy

This exhibition is a revelation and a treat. Valloton made lots of immensely pleasing, teasing, entertaining, beautiful and slightly puzzling images, enough to make it hard to leave the show. Normally I have half a dozen highlights from an exhibition, but I wanted to take twenty or thirty of Vallotton’s images away with me, wanted to be able to revisit them regularly, especially the woodcuts, and so I bought the catalogue (which is currently selling at the knock-down price of £12.50).

The exhibition is in six rooms so, rather than reinvent the wheel, I might as well follow the academy’s structure, with comments and observations along the way.

Early works

Félix Vallotton was born in 1865 into a Swiss Protestant family in Lausanne. At 16 he headed off for Paris, the art capital of the world, where he showed prodigious talent. He rejected studying at the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts and enrolled in the more informal Academie Julian. His early works are realistic and figurative in a way which completely ignored the avant-garde of the day, the (by now) prevailing style of Impressionism, or the various post-Impressionist styles which were on the horizon. From the start he went his own way, and his style right to the end would be realistic and, in many ways, deeply conservative. (Note, by the way, the large plain background to this confident self portrait; we’ll come back to it later…)

Self-portrait at the age of twenty (1885) by Félix Vallotton. Musée cantonal des Beaux-Arts de Lausanne. Photo © Nora Rupp

The early Nabis years

The Nabis was a group of French painters who rejected Impressionism in favour of lofty spiritual goals, and were more aligned with the late-nineteenth century movement of Symbolism.

The Nabis (from the Hebrew and Arabic term for ‘prophets’) were a Symbolist, cult-like group founded by Paul Sérusier, who organized his friends into a secret society. Wanting to be in touch with a higher power, this group felt that the artist could serve as a ‘high priest’ and ‘seer’ with the power to reveal the invisible. The Nabis felt that as artists they were creators of a subjective art that was deeply rooted in the soul of the artist. While the works of the Nabis differed in subject matter from one another, they all ascribed to certain formal tenets – for example, the idea that a painting was a harmonious grouping of lines and colors. (from the Art Story website)

The Nabis’ most famous members were Édouard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard. Valloton became involved with the Nabis in the early 1890s and their ideas produced a dramatic change in his style, as he experimented with non-naturalistic ways of playing with colour, pattern and form to try and convey the higher spiritual ideas the Nabis aspired to. Some of these are wonderful, for example an exquisite small stylised painting of a beach by moonlight, and a highly experimental painting of Parisians ice skating to waltz music, their gyrations throwing up sparkly fragments of ice which shimmer with multiple colours.

Waltz by Félix Vallotton (1893) Musée d’art moderne André-Malraux (MuMa), Le Havre, France. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

By far the oddest of these paintings is Bathing on a summer evening which combines all kinds of influences (from Old Master bathing scenes to the Pointillism of his contemporary Seurat, and maybe something of the naive style of Le Douanier Rousseau) to produce something very strange and ‘modern’. The curators point out the influence on many artists of this time of classic Japanese prints, which liberated Western painters from Renaissance perspective and helped them rethink the picture plane as a flat arrangement of lines and blocks of colours.

Bathing on a Summer Evening (1892-93) by Félix Vallotton © Kunsthaus Zürich

However, as the exhibition progresses you realise that early works like this are the exception rather than the rule. Or maybe that they were stepping stones towards his more mature and rather mysterious style. The oddity and ‘spiritual’ aspect of these Nabis works (if that’s what it is) become subsumed into a return to realism, but of a highly stylised variety.

Woodcuts

Valloton began making woodcuts in 1891 and quickly became an acknowledged expert in the medium, which was undergoing a revival across Europe. Changes in printing technology led in the 1880s and especially 1890s to a proliferation of illustrated journals and magazines.

(It was the proliferation of literary and popular magazines in London which led to the market for, and sudden florescence of, brilliant short fiction commissioned from the likes of Oscar Wilde, Rider Haggard, Conan Doyle and Rudyard Kipling. And in fact, Vallotton was also a writer, producing three novels and eight plays. He was also heavily involved in the theatre, designed stage sets, took photographs and made sculpture. In his best-known novel, The Murderous Life, the protagonist, Jacques Verdier, has a power which causes everyone in his path to die in a tragic accident. Vallotton illustrated the novel himself in the darkly humorous style of his woodcuts. All this is reminiscent of the black humour of exactly contemporary  English works like The Picture of Dorian Grey or of Aubrey Beardsley’s black and white prints.)

Valloton turned out to have a gift for woodcut as a form, being able to produce images which were entertaining, troubling, moody, artistic or humorous, as required. He became principal illustrator for the influential journal La Revue Blanche and, as such, came into contact with and befriended many of Paris’s artistic, musical and literary élite – Mallarmé, Debussy, Proust, Satie and so on.

‘This newcomer, who is not a beginner, engraved on blocks of soft pearwood various scenes of contemporary life with the candour of a sixteenth-century woodcut.’ (French critic Octave Uzanne describing Vallotton’s exceptional talent for printmaking)

The exhibition contains some forty of Vallotton’s woodcuts, arranged by series.

Paris life

I can’t find a figure for how many illustrations he created for La Revue Blanche but presumably it was lots. Included here are all kinds of street scenes including crowds caught in downpours and rioters attacking the police, schoolgirls laughing, swans in the park, a sudden downpour of rain, and so on. My favourite was a beautifully clear and precise image of a naked woman lying on her front on a highly patterned coverlet and reaching out to scratch a cat, titled Laziness.

Laziness (1896) by Félix Vallotton

Musicians

The Musicians series shows starchy Victorian ladies and gents playing the violin or piano or trumpet. The one that caught my eye was a man playing the flute but keeping a wary eye on a cat which looks like it’s about to pounce on him or his sheet music.

The Flute (1896) by Félix Vallotton

Worlds Fair

There’s a series of six woodcuts on the subject of the 1900 Paris World Fair, showing visitors gawping at jewels, having a picnic lunch, caught in a sudden rain shower, a recreation of a street scene in Algiers, a footbridge between displays, and, finally, a vivid woodcut depicting fireworks. All these illustrations are wonderfully vivid and characterful and fascinating social history.

Intimacies

Most famous is the series of ten graphic woodcuts he titled Intimacies. These portray the sexual mores of Parisians, and the moral and psychological intensity of late-Victorian affairs. Each one shows a scene fraught with sexual or psychological tension (I say ‘sexual’ – there’s no nudity; everything is implied).

Below is maybe the most striking and intriguing one, Money. What money, where? Is the man handing her money (doesn’t look like it) or offering her money verbally? For what? Sex? To buy her silence? Is she his mistress? Or an unhappy wife?

The curators point out Valloton’s striking use of black. It’s simple but extremely effective to have about two-thirds of the image, the whole right side, jet black. Thus the man doesn’t stand against a backdrop or shadow, but emerges out of the blackness. He is part of the blackness. All the others in the Intimacies series are just as strange and teasing and suggest complex psychodramas on which we are eavesdropping.

Intimacies V: Money (1898) by Félix Vallotton © Musées d’art et d’histoire, Ville de Genève, Cabinet d’arts graphiques

Vallotton’s extensive experience churning out woodcuts recording and satirising contemporary Paris life, fed over into his paintings. During this period they stopped being either the rather stiff portraits and still lifes of his first years in Paris, or the experimental paintings mentioned above like the Waltzers or Bathers, and became more like accompaniments in paint  of the contemporary social themes he was depicting in the woodcuts. Especially the Intimacies theme of the complexity of male-female relations, the complex lies and deceptions of the Paris bourgeoisie as they go about their affairs and infidelities. One is titled Five O’Clock which, we learn from the wall label, was the time of day when the Parisian bourgeois left their offices and went to visit their mistresses for an hour of pleasure, before returning home to their wives and families. Another shows a naked woman curled up in a very red chair, in a sort of defensive or foetal posture. You can’t help asking why. Has something bad happened to her, has she received good or bad news, or is it her usual comforting position?

Uncertainties

This is the theme or feeling which is present in his earlier paintings but comes more and more to the fore during the 1890s – which is that, although his technique remained pretty conservative (especially if you consider what was happening around him in Paris, with Picasso and Matisse just over the horizon), nonetheless, there is a very modern sense of unease and ambiguity about his paintings from the 1890s.

A good example is The Visit from 1899. Three points: 1. What is going on in this painting? Has she just arrived? Are they dancing? Or is he pushing her towards the open door at the left which we can assume leads into a bedroom? So is it an illicit visit from a mistress?

The Visit (1899) by Félix Vallotton © Kunsthaus Zürich

2. Note the bold colours. This is what Valloton had in common with the other Nabis: it’s a figurative scene alright, but all the colours are too overbright and simplified. It is this overlit colouring which creates the unsettling mood as much as the composition.

3. As are the faces. You can see the influence of all those hundreds of popular woodcuts, which required often cartoon-like simplicity of faces, spilling over into a simplification of the faces and indeed the outlines of the bodies in his paintings. It’s a painting of a real scene but all done with overbright simplifications of colour and outline which bring to mind, say, the style of American painter Edward Hopper. The clothes and decor have changed but the mood of lassitude or ambiguity, the troubled atmosphere between a man and a woman, are very similiar and above all, conveyed by simplifying the shape and colour of the figures, and leaving their faces blurred and shadowed.

Room in New York by Edward Hopper (1932)

Marriage

In 1899 Valloton dumped the Bohemian mistress he had lived with during the 1890s, and married Gabrielle Rodrigues-Henriques. This was an excellent career move in two ways. 1. She was the widowed daughter of Alexandre Bernheim, one of the most successful art dealers in Europe, and her brothers still ran the immensely successful art dealership. 2. She was rich.

At a stroke Vallotton moved from a garret studio with a mistress into a grand city house with a wife and step-children. He entertained. He became a good bourgeois and family man.

And his style changed, too. For a start he stopped making the woodcuts which had provided his livelihood during the 1890s, and ceased working for La Revue Blanche. Freed from financial worries he concentrated all his energies on painting.

A lot of these new paintings feature his wife, in a variety of respectable family poses, on the family sofa, or at the family dinner table. These portraits show the enduring influence on him of one of his heroes, Ingres, the painter of crystal-clear nudes and women’s faces.

But alongside these respectable paintings are others, also apparently sensible and polite, which nonetheless exude a strange unease and sense of foreboding. It is as if the psychological tensions he had investigated so ably in the Intimacies woodcuts has been driven underground to become merely implicit, barely implicit, only just noticeable.

The curators single out one particular painting from this period, The Ball, which shows a little girl in a garden chasing after a ball. What could be more innocent? And yet, when you look at it in the flesh, there is something very eerie about the way the shadow is creeping across the grass from the left and onto the gravel drive – almost as if it’s reaching out for her. And the darker shadows lurking at the bottom of the shrubbery above the girl. And something a little uncanny about the two figures in the distance…

The Ball (1899) by Félix Vallotton © Musée d’Orsay

This unsettling effect is much more obvious in a brilliant painting titled simply The Pond. A realistic painting of a pond, what could be more plain and simple? And yet (once again, more in the flesh than in this flat reproduction) once you’ve noticed the way the blackness of the pond water is seeping weirdly towards you, it’s impossible not to be a little worried by it. It’s like a still from the Disney film Fantasia, it looks like the shadow of the mountain coming to life, with big devil’s horns, rearing towards you…

The Pond (1909) by Félix Vallotton

Nudes

Also, from about 1904 onwards, alongside the many fully clothed and respectable portraits of his wife and step-children, Valloton began to focus his energies on the nude, the female nude.

If you realise that Picasso and Matisse were just launching their careers at just this time, it is astonishing just how conservative and traditional Valloton’s style was. If you do a quick google search of Félix Vallotton+nude it is astonishing to discover that he did so many of them.

Many of the nudes explicitly refer to the great tradition of Old Masters from his favourite, Ingres, through to Manet’s Olympia. In all of them there is a cold, detached, calculating air. The largest of the half dozen or so on display here is the wonderful White Woman and Black Woman of 1913.

White Woman and Black Woman (1913) by Félix Vallotton © Fondation Hahnloser, Winterthour

  1. The clarity There is hardly any shadow in the room. Everything is depicted in the exact crystalline light of Ingres.
  2. The technical virtuosity Look at him show off his ability to paint folds of cloth, one of the litmus tests of the Old Masters stretching back to Titian.
  3. Psychology In the Olympia of Manet the fully clothed black servant is bringing flowers to the naked prostitute Olympia, very obviously serving her. But what on earth is the relationship here, between the black woman who’s very casually dressed and – for God’s sake – smoking a fag!? All kinds of speculation is possible, the curators’ favourite one being that they are lesbian lovers, but it looks much more complex and weird than that.
  4. The nude The depiction of the white woman’s naked body is quite simply stunning. It is a masterwork in the depiction of fleshtones, and the way they vary across the naked body, rising towards her flushed red cheeks. Why are her cheeks flushed and red?

You remember me pointing out about the first painting in this review, how the background is a flat, bare wash? Well, same here. Once I’d processed the lavish sensual appeal of the naked body in this painting, and then wondered about the relationship between the two figures, than I turned to consider a third level or avenue of approach, which is to see it purely as a composition of colours – and surely the most striking thing is the huge size of the aquamarine wall behind both figures. Against which is set the black woman’s brilliant orange headscarf. And then her bright blue wrap, for sure. If it is a virtuoso display of folds and shadows in fabric, it is also, on another level, an exercise in big blocks of colour. Once I’d noticed this fondness for slabs of colour, I began to notice it in many of his paintings, and also link it up with his decisive use of solid black in the woodcuts. It’s an entire visual approach to see things as blocks rather than broken up into the multitude of details.

Landscapes

In 1909, alongside his prodigious output of nudes, Valloton turned his attention to landscapes. As with so many of his earlier depictions of people, these were done in a simplified style which often brought out the basic shapes underlying messy nature and, as with the nude above, done in primary or elemental colours.

A good example is The Pond, above, with its radical simplification of pond, grass, shrubs and trees to create an almost cartoon-like image.

He called them composed landscapes. He had taken to using a box camera at the turn of the century and now it became a habit to take photos of a scene and then use that, once developed, to paint the scene from the simplified (black and white) photo and from memory. He dreamed, he said, ‘of a painting free from any literal respect for nature.’

The result was landscapes reduced to broad ‘zones’ or shapes of colour which recall the simplifications of the woodblock. And also hark back to the principles of the Nabis from a decade or more earlier, the idea that art needn’t be realistic, but was more a matter of finding the colours and patterns which replicated your inner feelings.

A late landscape which really got me was Last Rays painted at Honfleur where Vallotton spent many of his summers and where he made several versions of this scene of umbrella pine trees overlooking the Bay of the Seine. In its simplification and strong sense of design it subtly references the clarity of the Japanese prints which had so influenced him in the 1890s.

Last Rays (1911) by Félix Vallotton © Musée des Beaux-Arts de Quimper

A conventional artist?

But, also, looking round any of the rooms, I kept being amazed at how… conventional Vallottin is. It’s as if Impressionism or any other modern art movement had never happened. Towards the end of the exhibition, I began to realise why I’d never heard of Félix Vallotton before – because he stands so totally outside the classic narrative of Modern Art, and its core lineage from Impressionism thru Post-Impressionism, to the eruption of Picasso and Matisse, and then into Cubism, Futurism etc etc.

None of this seems to have had any impact on Vallotton, and if you look at his Wikipedia article, you do get the impression that many if not most of his paintings can be read as utterly traditional and ‘straight’.

Which set me wondering whether the curator’s attempt to rebrand Vallotton as the painter of ‘unease’ quite stacks up. There’s nothing particularly uneasy about the trees at sunset above, nor about many of the nudes which are just skillful paintings of naked women, often in not very flattering postures, but depicted with beautiful fluency.

Maybe it would be impossible just to stage an exhibition of Vallotton’s work ‘cold’ as it were; maybe it would come across as too conventional and, possibly, in some cases, kitsch, as reworkings of Ingres-style nudes and Flemish-style still lifes being painted in the 1910s.

Maybe the curators had to find an angle, some kind of modernist theme, to make him appear edgy and relevant.

The Great War

Then the Great War broke out. Vallotton was swept up in the patriotic fervour (he had become a French citizen in 1900) but was dismayed to discover he was too old (49) to enlist. Interestingly, the war sparked the decision to create a new series of woodcuts, a genre he hadn’t touched since 1900. Maybe he associated the woodcut with journalism, with the immediate depiction of a society’s life, with the everyday activities of its citizens, and so with the journalistic immediacy of the war and its horrors. In fact the images were copied from newspaper photos or articles before he worked them up into woodcuts.

The result was a series of six woodcuts, collectively titled This is War! and consisting of: The Trench, The Orgy (being a piss-up in a wine cellar), Barbed wire, In the Darkness, the Lookout, and The Civilians.

The Trench (1915) by Félix Vallotton © Bibliothèque de Lausanne – Cabinet de gravures et xylogravures

In their stylised simplification, all six are cartoon-like and almost comic. They remind me a little of the Great War cartoons of William Heath-Robinson. They certainly evince the kind of visual humour which characterised the woodcuts of the 1890s and which largely disappeared from his paintings after 1900. It’s interesting to think that it was there all along, this impish humour, but that he had consciously suppressed it in order to become ‘a serious artist’.

In 1917 Vallotton managed to secure a government commission to tour the trenches in the Champagne region, which led to paintings of the battlefields of Verdun, of ruined churches behind the lines and so on.

Haunted realism

In line with the curator’s thesis that Vallotton is the painter of quiet unease, they end with an image which combines everything we’ve learned so far. It is an astonishingly realistic depiction of peppers on a plate, summarising his prodigious gift as a draughtsman and colorist, and his reverence for the naturalistic tradition of the Old Masters. (Also, I note, the blank slablike colouring of the neutral background.)

But this dazzling work of photorealism was painted during the appalling blood-letting of the Great War, and the curators draw our attention to the knife. Nothing in the picture justifies the way the knife blade is half covered in something red. Is it blood, symbolising the immense bloodletting going on all across the once peaceful civilised continent of Europe? Or just a reflection of the peppers next to it?

Red Peppers (1915) by Félix Vallotton. Kunstmuseum Solothurn, Dübi-Müller Foundation. Photo © SIK-ISEA, Zurich

Disquiet or not?

Let’s weight the evidence.

The popular illustrative woodblocks he made for La Revue Blanche don’t display a trace of ‘disquiet’, they’re entertaining and very straightforward pictures of Parisians in parks or rain showers or at the Worlds Fair. But the Intimacies series of woodcuts are all about bourgeois guilt, hypocrisy and unease.

Some of the landscapes are just simplified landscapes stylised in the way he had made his own. But others, yes, some of the others are strange and a little… disconcerting.

And many of the paintings made during the 1890s definitely depict fully-dressed bourgeois couples in ambiguous situations. Or single individuals in rather… puzzling moods.

Of the half dozen nudes here, most are just paintings of women without their clothes on, highlighting the way women’s tummies or boobs can hang very unromantically downwards if they’re lying on their sides. But some of them hint at something a little more… mysterious and teasing…

So are the curators justified in labelling Vallotton ‘the painter of disquiet’? It’s hard to say. You’d have to review all 70 or so works on display here with this thesis in mind: maybe… And then are you allowed to review the rest of his works which are readily available online and most of which seem remarkably… un-disquieting…

All I can say with certainty is that this exhibition is a revelation of a painter I’d never heard of before – whose woodcuts are entertaining, charming and evocative – and whose range of paintings, from mysterious interiors to stunningly accurate nudes, through to the entrancing simplicity of the ‘composed landscapes’, from family portraits to slightly unnerving still lives – present an array of accessible, attractive, memorable and subtly haunting images. Wow. Very enjoyable. Well worth the price of admission.

Promotional video

Curators

Senior Curator – Ann Dumas,  Assistant Curator – Anna Testar.


Related links

Reviews of other Royal Academy exhibitions

The Farewell Party by Milan Kundera (1972)

Kundera’s third novel feels shorter and more streamlined than the first two. At 184 pages (cf The Joke pp.267 and Life Is Elsewhere pp.306) it is a slim, quick, funny, if sometimes shocking read. The first two novels, though comic in tone and often in content, contained big wodges of serious, sometimes tragic material about politics and repression under the Czech communist state. In The Farewell Waltz some of this content intrudes, in the character of Jakub the embittered political dissident. But apart from him, the rest of the story feels much closer to a farce, a sex comedy. According to the internet, a farce is:

a comic dramatic work using buffoonery and horseplay, and typically including crude characterization and ludicrously improbable situations

That doesn’t really describe this book, but it does gesture towards the way The Farewell Party begins with a predicament and then goes on to wring as many comic situations and variations out of it as possible, placing its characters in improbable and unlikely situations in order to extract as much comedy, and plain absurdity, as possible.

The plot

First Day (Monday)

Klima is a famous Czech jazz trumpeter. He is happily married. Two months before the action starts he had played a gig at a health spa in the country. He and the band were treated to an after-gig party by a rich American staying at the spa (Bartleff), and Klima ended up having sex with one of the spa nurses, Ruzena. Now she’s pregnant, and on the second page of the book she rings him up at his Prague apartment to let him know it. Thus the ball is set rolling. The book is divided into five sections titled simply First Day, Second day etc. and it all happens over this tight, compressed timespan.

Klima is a coward, a timid man, who takes advantage of his fame to seduce women, but always feels nervous about it beforehand, guilty about it afterwards. Deep down, he is deeply, sincerely in love with his wife.

He tells the band he’s rehearsing with about the call, and his bandmates are sanguine, suggesting a variety of tactics to fob her off. The young guitarist (18) even suggests bumping her off in a supposed ‘road accident’. The reader is a little startled.

Klima thanks them all, then phones Ruzena and says he’ll come and visit her tomorrow. Then goes home and cobbles together a cock-and-bull story to tell his wife, Kamila, about having to play some socialist party youth conference or other. She doesn’t believe a word. She is well-attuned to his infidelities and lies. He knows he doesn’t believe her.

Second Day (Tuesday)

Klima motors to the spa and looks up Bartleff, the American patient with the bad heart, who hosted the party where Klima met the fateful nurse. He shares his problem (he’s gotten a nurse at the spa pregnant) with this bluff man of the world, who offers various suggestions.

Klima is surprised to learn that Bartleff paints religious pictures. There’s a new one, of Saint Lazarus, on the wall of his apartment. Bartleff explains it is blue because real saints’ halos really are blue. Klima is only paying half attention.

Klima phones Ruzena at the bath where she’s working and arranges to meet her after work, at 4pm. Then Bartleff takes him across the way, to the clinic, to meet Dr Skreta, the leading specialist at the spa.

IRONY The spa exists to treat infertile women. The place is packed with well-off, middle-aged women who can’t get pregnant. It is therefore a primal, structural irony that the entire plot rotates around a young woman who has gotten pregnant, after just one act of hurried coitus, but the father wants to terminate it.

Throughout the conversations with his band, and then with Bartleff, and now with Dr Skreta, the men discuss women as a problematic category, in an objectifying way, which I imagine most modern readers would find horrifying. I couldn’t tell whether the guitarist’s casual suggestion that they murder the nurse, and Klima’s casual acceptance of it, was meant to be ironic or straightfaced. The book is stuffed with men casually discussing the trouble with women and the problem with women and how to handle women and the differences between blondes and brunettes – dismissive and gross generalisations, which would give a feminist a heart attack.

Anyway, when Klima and Bartleff explain Klima’s problem, Skreta is immediately sympathetic. He tells them the next abortion committee meeting is on Friday and he can slot Klima and Nurse Ruzena straight in. And he shares a private passion of his which is that he is himself a keen jazz drummer. Could Klima maybe see his way to playing a gig with him and a bassist who also works at the spa?

So anxious is he to secure the decision for an abortion that Klima would agree to anything. Good, yes, whatever. They set the concert date for this Thursday, the day after tomorrow. Galvanised, Dr Skreta vows to set about creating the posters and printing up tickets.

Klima meets Ruzena at 4pm outside the baths and takes her to the spa dining rooms. Here he commences his strategy: he tells Ruzena that he loves her so much that’s why he didn’t phone her at all for two months after their liaison; it was because he was afraid of the intensity of his emotions. He carries on despite her sceptical protestations, to assert that of course he will leave his wife, and wants to marry Ruzena – she begins to soften and swoon – BUT: the first few years of any marriage are the most blissful and he wants to spend them with her, unobstructed, unencumbered with a new baby. And that’s why he thinks she should terminate the pregnancy.

He suggests they get out of the dining rooms – where he is uncomfortably aware that everyone in the place can see him. Ruzena is impressed that he has a car, and so is easily persuaded to go for a drive in the country. Klima puts his arm round her as he drives and presses home his advantage, spinning fantasies about where they’ll go once he’s divorced his wife and married her.

He stops the car at a scenic spot and they walk into the country. He kisses her, a long lingering passionate kiss. He is in the middle of describing how Italy will be the first stop and he’s in the middle of painting the beauties of Italy when she surprises him by giving in. Yes. OK. Alright. She’ll place herself in his hands. She’ll agree to go to the abortion committee on Friday. (p.44)

Klima can’t believe his luck. In the end it was so easy. They walk back to the car, her head on his shoulder, but as they get there realise a motorbike is parked next to it and the motorcyclist looms threateningly up to Klima and starts telling him that, just because he’s famous, he thinks he can get away with anything; well, not this time, buddy! Klima hasn’t a clue what’s going on, Ruzena tells the man to shut up and go away and scrambles into the car, as the man turns towards her side, Klima jumps in his side and accelerates off. She explains he’s a maniac who stalks her. We will, in fact, come to learn that this is Ruzena’s boyfriend, a local rough named Franta, who has had sex with her and who may, indeed, actually be the father of her baby…

Arriving back at the spa, Klima escorts Ruzena to her nurse accommodation in the stylishly named Karl Marx house, before walking thoughtfully to Bartleff’s flat. He knocks and when there’s no answer, tentatively opens the door. For a moment he is awed. The room is lit by a soft blue glow. Remember the dialogue when Bartleff explained that he liked painting religious pictures? And that he had painted St Lazarus’s halo blue because that is actually the colour of saints’ halos? Well… Klima backs out and quietly closes the door, but next minute it is opened by Bartleff looking fresh and wearing the same clothes he had on that morning, who welcomes him inside, rejoices when he hears that Ruzena has given in and agreed to an abortion, and plies him with food (crackers and tinned ham). Then waves him off as Klima leaves, belatedly, to drive back to the capital and explain why his day took so long to his long-suffering wife.

Third Day (Wednesday)

A friend of Dr Skreta’s arrives. This is Jakub, who was in trouble with the authorities in the grim years after the 1948 coup, and for whom Dr Skreta knocked up a blue pill of concentrated poison, so that if Jakub was arrested, before he was tortured, he could control his own destiny and end it all. Now he announces he is leaving the country, he has official permission and is going to a teaching position abroad. He wants to return the pill. Dr Skreta won’t hear of it and pushes it back into Jakub’s hand when it is profferred.

(There is some very casual comedy, when Skreta forces his friend to accompany him into the examination room where a woman is lying on her back, naked, with her legs wide open so Skreta can examine her. It is a feature of Skreta’s character that he takes all this in his stride and tells the nurse to fetch his fellow doctor a white coat, and then confidently asks for his second opinion. So that the lady on the table is not discombobulated by the presence of another man looking at her privates, but quite flattered to have two specialists examining her case. Dr Skreta’s boundless self-confidence will recur at important moments later in the story.)

Jakub is here because he’s come to say goodbye to his ‘ward’, Olga. This young woman is the daughter of a friend of Jakub’s who was arrested and executed by the communists in the purges of the early 1950s when Olga was just seven. Jakub vowed to look after her, became her legal guardian, and when she left school got her a job here at the spa, via his old friend Dr Skreta.

Skreta says Olga is fine and tells Jakub which accommodation block to find her in. He also tells him about a) the famous jazz trumpeter Klima, his problem with the pregnant nurse, and how Skreta is going to play in a concert with him this Thursday. And b) about his latest money-making scheme. You know the rich American, Bartleff? He paints oil pictures. Skreta is trying to persuade Bartleff to let him become his agent and sell the paintings to gullible ladies at the spa, and take a commission.

Jakub shakes his head. He’s known Skreta since school, and he is continually coming up with hare-brained schemes.

We are introduced to Olga. She is bright but not excessively so. She fusses and frets about her appearance and figure. She is called out of the pool by Nurse Ruzena who she cordially dislikes. She makes a fuss about what to wear for Jakub, makes a decision then goes to meet him for lunch in the spa dining room. He tells her he’s leaving the country.

She is sad but, as usual, they end up discussing her father. Recently she’s been receiving letters claiming he wasn’t the political innocent Jakub’s brought her up to believe, but himself a hardline communist and arrester of others, till he himself was consumed.

Jakub’s thread introduces the serious themes of History or, to be precise, the tragic history of Czechoslovakia’s early years under communist rule, when some 100,000 opponents of the regime were imprisoned or sent to camps, and there were successive waves of executions of enemies of the state, traitors and saboteurs. Olga’s questions prompt several basic reflections from Jakub:

1. It was all a long time ago. The Farewell Party was published in 1972, 24 years after the 1948 communist coup, and that’s been long enough for Jakub to reflect that the younger generation can have no idea what it was like and, indeed, even people like himself who lived through it, are starting to forget what it was really like.

‘Time flies so fast, and the past is becoming harder and harder to understand.’ (p.60)

2. And, cynically, he remarks that if he’s learned anything from the experience of living through those times, it’s that, most people spend most of their lives living in a small bubble of family and work, but if History intervenes, and if the situation becomes stressed and difficult, then people will do anything to survive. Now the dust has settled, he thinks there was no ultimate difference between the communist authorities who locked up all those innocent people, and the victims. People are people.

There isn’t a person on this planet who is not capable of sending a fellow human being to death without any great pangs of conscience. At least I have never found anyone like that. (p.61)

Cut to Ruzena’s morning at work, where her fellow nurses flock round her and ask how her meeting with the famous trumpeter went. They are disappointed when she says he’s persuaded her to terminate the pregnancy. One of them gets a tube of pills out of a drawer and gives it to Ruzena, tranquilisers to calm her nerves.

Exiting the building she is again confronted by her young man, Franta, who begs her to be more friendly and loving to him. But Ruzena has set her sights high, on a national celebrity, o Klima, and tells Franta to bugger off. She tells him he’s driving her frantic, he’ll drive her to suicide if he keeps on harassing her like this! (p.66)

Back in Olga’s room, Olga and Jakub continue their conversation. He tells her about his friend Dr Skreta and his eccentric ideas. On an impulse he pulls out the blue pill, the suicide pill, and explains how Dr Skreta made it for him with no questions asked, just before Jakub was hauled off to prison. (He was lucky; he only served one year.)

Blue symbolism The colour blue recurs in key symbols. The sky is blue above this rather fairy tale spa. The mysterious halo in Bartleff’s room is blue. And the pill of death is blue.

The dog squad

As well as an irritating young boyfriend, Ruzena also has an embarrassing old dad, who has joined some cockamamy squad of old codgers who have formed a ‘squad’ to round up all the stray dogs running wild in the town who are pooing and peeing everywhere, or so they claim.

The importance of this for the plot is that it triggers the deep dislike between Jakub and Ruzena. For Ruzena has just finished her shift and is walking between buildings, her head full of thoughts about the two worlds she inhabits: the stifling provincial one of the spa, characterised by hordes of fat middle-aged women and hardly any eligible men, only biker losers like Franta – and the big wide glamorous world of Prague and beyond, with which she associates Klima. Throughout the book she vacillates between going along with his request for an abortion, and then in a panic realising having his baby is her only hope for escaping her sad little destiny.

She is in just such a wavering state when she sees her dad and a few of the other dog squad emerging from bushes where they’ve been hunting dogs with long poles with wire nooses at the end. They’ve captured a dachshund. Suddenly Ruzena sees Jakub walking along the pavement towards her. He was sitting with Olga earlier, Olga who she hates for her superior manner. Now Jakub calls to her ‘Come here, don’t be afraid, come to me’ and is startled until, a second later, she realises he is talking to a dog, to a squat ugly bulldog which was behind her. He has completely blanked her in preference for some ugly mutt! The humiliation!

As Jakub picks it up to protect it from the dog hunters, Ruzena steps forward and grabs its collar, telling Jakub she’ll report him to the authorities.

They engage in an absurd tug of war which is also, Kundera points out, no less than a battle between two worldviews: she, driven by resentment and humiliation and anger at her cramped small-town life, burns to take revenge on this smarmy, self-confident, big city intellectual. He, for his part, sees in her exactly the petty-minded, bureaucratic, vengeful, small-minded party zealot who, in their thousands, supervised the arrest, stage trials and imprisonment of him and a hundred thousand like him, epitome of all those ‘prison guards, inquisitors and informers.’ (p.75)

In fact it’s even worse: Ruzena is the type of the bystander who rushes to help the executioner, rushes to pin the victim down so his throat can be cut, and full of pious self-justifying high-minded rhetoric about society and morals – a type who came to prominence in the century of calamity.

In this moment History returns in the form of a man and a woman absurdly tugging at the collar of a mutty old bulldog. Jakub wins, and yanks her hand away, turning and quickly entering the building where Olga lives. For a moment their eyes meet in a look of pure hatred.

Jakub takes the dog up to Olga’s apartment where Dr Skreta arrives and, with his usual confidence, announces the dog is well known, named Bobis, and belongs to a couple a little way out of town. Now he takes Jakub with him to Bartleff’s apartment, explaining on the way his latest hare-brained scheme, which is to ask the American Bartleff to adopt him, Dr Skreta, so that Skreta immediately becomes an American citizen and can travel freely outside Czechoslovakia!

The three men gather for a convivial chat on many subjects. It is now that we explicitly learn that Bartleff believes halos are a consequence of experiencing oneness with the Godhead, divine delight and are, indeed, blue. Doesn’t think this – he knows it (p.78).

Moving on from this eccentric view, they go on to discuss Klima’s predicament, and then the conversation turns to the topic of fertility in general. Jakub, clearly established now as the Cynic, gives a suite of reasons why he thinks human beings should not procreate, climaxing with the Big One, that procreating implies an absolute affirmation of human life which he, personally, after his life experiences, feels unable to give. After all, as even the usually bullish Dr Skreta is forced to admit:

‘Humanity produces an incredible number of idiots.’ (p.92)

Olga leaves her water treatment and finds a note on her door telling her they’re all at Bartleff’s. There she joins Bartleff, Skreta and Jakub for a convivial private diner, brought to them by a waiter (Bartleff is a rich American, remember) during which he holds forth with a pet theory about the religion of the saints, namely that is was built on a thirst for admiration rather than holiness, as such.

Then the meal is interrupted by a beautiful little girl of 12, in a white dress tied with huge bow behind which looks like angel wings, appears to tell Bartleff he has another appointment. About this stage – what with his knowledge of halos and religion and the arrival of this little angel – I began to wonder whether Bartleff would be a redeeming saving angel in the story: whether it would have a truly supernatural element, as all these little symbols and moments suggest…

Bartleff leaves and Olga, with the callousness of youth, dismisses him as a posing self-dramatist. Skreta and Jakub walk her back to room and then go for a stroll under the big August moon. And it is now that Skreta lets Jakub in on a profound secret: all the women he treats for infertility and who get magically pregnant (including Bartleff’s own wife) – he, Skreta, has created a frozen store of his own sperm, and he is inseminating them all with his own seed. He is creating a world of brothers. No end of communist rhetoric craps on about a world of equality, where brothers and sisters share a common interest, and common values. Well, he, Skreta, is taking steps to really bring it about!

But, as so often in Kundera, his interlocutor, Jakub, is miles away, thinking about his conflicted feelings for Olga, and whether to leave tomorrow or not. He only half hears what Skreta tells him, and thinks it’s another one of his hare-brained schemes.

Fourth Day (Thursday – 47 pages)

Mrs Klima knows all about her husband’s infidelities and they drive her wild with jealousy. As soon as he said some communist committee obliged him to play a benefit gig at some spa resort with a pickup band including a doctor, she knew he was lying. Now, Thursday morning finds them in bed and he lies all over again and can see in her face she doesn’t believe a word. She goes to work. She works in a theatre. She used to be a famous actress but fell ill and her stage career ended. Now she asks if she can have the afternoon off. She’s going to take the train to this bloody spa and confront Klima with his lies!

Olga is having her morning dip in the spa pool among all the naked fat middle-aged women when a young dude in jeans walks in, then a few more follow him. They’re a film crew down from Prague, they’re filming a documentary about the spa. Olga is outraged, gets out and flings a towel round her, before storming off to her cubicle, leaving the woman supervising the pool, nurse Ruzena, fuming.

Jakub has been persuaded to stay on at the spa for an extra day. Dr Skreta has told him that the bulldog which he saved from the dog squad belongs to a young couple who live out in a village. So he drives the dog back to their owners, a young couple with a baby. They’re grateful and give him lunch and present their squawling new baby. What a big nose it’s got, rather like Dr Skreta’s comic banana nose. Hang on! Jakub asks if they were treated by Dr Skreta? ‘Yes! How did he know.’ So maybe Skreta’s hare-brained scheme about breeding a little generation of brothers isn’t mad after all. Maybe he really has been treating all the women’s fertility problems by impregnating them with  his own semen.

For Franta, Ruzena is the only girl he’s ever slept with, she made him a man, she is his world. To watch her swanning off with this big city musician makes him furious. He finishes a fridge repair job (that’s his work) and motorbikes into the spa, heading for the concert hall to watch Klima practice for that night’s gig. For the rest of the day he will be Klima’s shadow.

Jakub drives back to the roadside restaurant where he’s arranged to meet Olga. He doesn’t notice Klima’s car there or Franta’s motorbike. Klima is waiting impatiently for Ruzena and when she arrives he guides her impatiently to a table by the window. She’s been realising Klima is lying to her and begun to be full of righteous indignation. Klima grasps her hand and is half way through telling her how much she loves him when she announces that she’s changed her mind: she’s going to have the baby after all. Klima’s world collapses around him. Glancing out the window she sees Franta peeking out at them from behind some bushes. God, he’s following her everywhere. Feeling harassed she remembers the tube of pills her nurse friend gave her, pulls it out and opens it and pops one of the blue tranquilisers. Klima takes both her hands in his and begins some long speech and then it crosses his mind to take her for a cruise, maybe being in the car will bring back the mood of yesterday.

So up they get and leave. Jakub has been watching all this from across the restaurant and now goes over to the vacated table (the one with the best view in the place). He notices the vial of blue pills Ruzena has left on the table and picks it up and idly plays with it before opening it and being struck how the pills inside are the identical colour as the famous suicide pill Dr Skreta made for him. He gets the suicide pill out. He toys with it in his hand. Playfully he slips it inside Ruzena’s glass vial.

And just at the exact moment Ruzena appears at the table asking for her pills back. She’d got all the way to Klima’s car then realised she’d forgotten them. Jakub hesitates. Ruzena insists. They both recognise each other as the antagonists over the lost dog. Their hatred revives. She reaches out for the vial and he moves his hand up out of reach while he blusteringly tries to think of an excuse not to give them up. But Ruzena screams at him to hand them over, and suddenly something snaps in him. Coldly and ceremoniously, Jakub hands over the vial with the poison pill in it.

For the next seventy or so pages of the book, whenever we come back to Jakub, he will be agonising that he has just condemned the young nurse to death and that – given his political history – this makes him no better at all than the inquisitors and executioners who murdered his friends.

Mrs Klima gets a train to the spa to spy on her friends and is pleasantly surprised to come across the film crew who so upset Olga. They are old friends, they persuade her to come for a lunchtime drink.

On the drive it occurs to Klima that what might persuade Nurse Ruzena that he loves her would be if he made love to her again, if they reconnected on a primal level. Come and see me after the concert, he says, and drops her off.

Ruzena is walking through town at a loss what to do when he hears a voice calling. It’s the three-man camera crew who she let into the pool this morning and so upset Olga. They call her to join them and the pretty woman with them (Klima’s wife).

Jakub hurries his meal with Olga to an end and then rushes to the concert hall where he finds Skreta and Klima rehearsing. He asks if either of them have seen Ruzena, which they haven’t. Suddenly it dawns on him that this is the fulfilment of a deep unconscious wish. He is now proving his most cynical tenet true: there is no difference between the persecutors and the victims. He is thrilled to be murdering one of the petty-minded little bullies. And at the same time he is horrified by himself.

In the nook at the outside pub the three-man film crew are chatting up the two women, the director rubbing Mrs Klima’s thigh with his, while the cameraman puts his arm round Ruzena and accidentally-on-purpose touches her breast. Things are heading towards a drunken orgy when Ruzena suddenly sits bolt upright. She has recognised Kamila as being Klima’s husband. Suddenly it feels like the whole universe is mocking her. The men laugh at her sudden outburst of propriety, and she is longing, longing to tell them she carries the fruit of the loins of oh-so-high-and-mighty Kamila the famous actress. She reaches into her handbag to get the vial of tranquilisers, when she feels a strong hand grip her wrist.

It is Bartleff. His intervention just as Ruzena was about to pop the suicide pill feels a little supernatural, and emphasises even more his magic and mysterious powers. A big, confident man, Bartleff sits down with the crew – who make the resentment they feel at this intrusion prety obvious – and takes charge of proceedings, asking the boy waiter for the best wine in the house, insisting the owner comes to join in a toast, and toasting Ruzena’s beauty. Suddenly she feels transformed from a squalid small town girl to an angel.

Bartleff gets up and accompanies Ruzena off. The party atmosphere of the others collapses. Kamila feels suddenly revolted by the film crew, gets up and leaves.

The concert Jakub takes Olga to the concert. As they settle in, he sees Bartleff and Ruzena sitting not far away and believes more than ever that things have been arranged by a malicious God to torment him. The concert starts and, after a few numbers, Jakub begins to stand up, so he can go and talk to them and warn them about the pill, but at that moment a) Olga grabs his hand and tells him to sit down b) Bartleff and Ruzena themselves get up and swiftly exit the hall. The moment has gone.

Klima had noticed Bartleff and Ruzena coming in and felt confident she was there and he could see her after the show. But when he notices Bartleff and Ruzena exiting, his energy slips, he feels deflated: he just wants the concert to be over. But Dr Skreta is drumming like crazy behind him and won’t let him stop.

Bartleff takes Ruzena back to his apartment and tells her he loves her, he has always loved her. His words are like honey, like magic, she warms and stirs and for the first time for as long as she can remember is not full of self-hatred and doubt. As Bartleff describes how beautiful she is, Ruzena begins to believe it. As he begins to strip her, her body turns to him like a sunflower towards the sun.

As the concert ends Jakub takes Olga back to her room. His mind is obsessed with Ruzena and the pill and he goes round and round in circles trying to decide whether he is a murderer or a hypocrite or an angel of death or the instrument of some higher purpose. He hardly notices when Olga leans forward and kisses him.

Mrs Klima elbows her way through to the dressing room after the concert. She is convinced her husband is having an affair, and expects the arrival of some dollybird any moment, and so is watching him like a hawk. But Klima just seems to be tired, and tells Dr Skreta and the bassist the same. Tired and just wants to go to his room.

Olga kisses Jakub again and leads the absent-minded older man over to the couch where she starts loosening his shirt.

Franta was at the entire concert and now tails the trumpeter to the dressing room, hangs around, and then follows him towards his temporary flat, but… where the devil is Ruzena? Franta just knows she was going to meet the trumpeter after the show, so where’s she got to?

Three acts of love

Kamila and Klima walk to the building and apartment Dr Skreta has arranged for them to stay in overnight. It’s in the same corridor as Olga’s and Bartleff’s. In one room Bartleff is showing Ruzena the most wonderful night of her life; not because of his sexual technique as such, but because he has a magical way of really making her feel beautiful and loved.

Next door Olga has stripped and laid on the couch and Jakub is quietly appalled to find himself in the position of having to make love to her lest he embarrass and humiliate her on the last time they’ll ever spend together. Reluctantly he tries to rise to the occasion, despite a world of details reminding him that she is his ward and charge.

And in the third bedroom, Kamila slowly strips for Klima but he knows she is only doing it, provocatively, because she is convinced he had some erotic escapade lined up. He hates her jealousy and, in his bitterness, his penis shrinks away from her ministrations, convincing Kamila even more that it is not she her husband had been planning to make love to that night.

Meanwhile, Ruzena has never known love like it. She realises she has her whole life ahead of her. There is no need to rush into anything. She falls asleep snuggled in Bartleff’s arms and, when she wakes in the middle of the night, notices the dark room lit by a strange blueish glow. Is he a saint?

Fifth Day (Friday – 34 pages)

Next morning Klima gets up early to go and find Ruzena but she isn’t at her work, or in her dormitory. Unknown to him he is tailed everywhere by Franta, who’s been waiting outside Ruzena’s dormitory all night, frantic with jealousy. Eventually, Ruzena exits from Bartleff’s apartment and is confronted in quick succession by both men, Klima desperate that she is going to come with him to the abortion committee at 9am as they agreed yesterday.

Jakub wakes and immediately calls the bathhouse asking for Ruzena. They say she’s busy right now. An enormous weight lifts from his shoulders, and he thinks: what if the pill Dr Skreta made him was harmless? Yes, that would be the act of a true friend. And he spends a page expanding on this idea that Skreta, the true friend, would never have given him poison. Phew! What a relief!

Klima waits in the waiting room outside the spa pools where Ruzena works till 9. She emerges and he escorts her in silence to the abortion clinic.

Jakub dresses and tiptoes out of the room without waking Olga. He bumps into Mrs Klima who is just leaving their room. They introduce each other and walk downstairs, cross the road into the park. Jakub is absolutely staggered by Kamila’s beauty. Now, on the verge of leaving his homeland forever, he is overcome by a sense that he has never understood the world of art beauty and culture. Suddenly, on impulse, he tells her he is going away, he is leaving the country, he is never coming back, and that she is the most beautiful woman he has ever seen. Then he turns and walks away leaving her standing, watching him, till he disappears from view.

The abortion clinic is grim. Abortion is frowned on in the communist state. The country needs more patriotic citizens. The waiting room is plastered with posters encouraging procreation and praising motherhood.

Jakub returns to Olga’s room. She’s awake now, and inordinately pleased with herself. She is no longer a passive creation of men, somebody’s daughter, somebody’s ward. She has asserted her personhood. Jakub sadly says he really is leaving. He offers to walk her to the pool. On the way she comes over as so gushingly girly, so sweetly indifferent to the fact that he’s leaving his homeland forever, that he realises he has, once again, misjudged the situation. The only thing he knows, is that he knows nothing.

The meeting of the little abortion committee should be grim but is comical. Dr Skreta chairs the session, flanked by two chunky communist party matrons, and he has their measure to perfection. He puts on a tone of aggrieved sternness, and reads the unhappy couple a lecture about the joys of procreation and the needs of the socialist state etc. The matrons nod heavily. But then, with a sigh, he turns to the psychiatric report saying Mrs Klima is in a delicate state, a divorce might kill her. And we don’t want young nurse Ruzena to suffer the indignity of single motherhood. And so, with a heavy heart, Skreta declares that, alas and alack, he is going to sign the form for the abortion to go ahead. The matrons sternly lecture Klima and the nurse and then in turn sign the form. He goes to get up but they say, ‘Not so fast’. They dismiss Ruzena but announce that Klima has to remain behind to ‘volunteer’ to give blood. Cheap at half the price.

Finally, they allow Ruzena to leave, but she finds an angry Franta waiting outside, who blasts her with accusations and follows her down the stairs despite seeing she is distraught.

Having made all his goodbyes, Jakub crosses the spa, and comes across a group of schoolchildren being taken on a nature trail. Looking closely he sees that more than one of them looks like a little Dr Skreta and feels giddy, feels a sense of unreality. All his life he has been close to the centre of things, to the heart of the action, to politics and weighty affairs. What if all that was nonsense? What if the real beating heart of a country, a nation, of the thing we call reality, is miles away and other than we can possibly imagine?

Furious Franta follows Ruzena across the spa and into the hall where she works, up the stairs and along the corridor and into the hall lined with beds where women patients rest in cotton dressing gowns after their dip, shouting all the way that it is his baby and how dare she seek to terminate it. (Franta is under the misapprehension that Ruzena is pregnant with his baby and has somehow paid or blackmailed the trumpeter to pose as its father in order to secure a termination. The much worse reality hasn’t dawned on him.)

At the climax of their argument Ruzena reaches into her handbag, pulls out the vial of tranquilisers, fetches out the one at the top and pops it into her mouth, moments later feels a stab of pain in her tummy, bends double, and falls to the floor, dead!

The aftermath of nurse Ruzena’s mystery death

Franta gets even more hysterical and starts shouting that he killed her, it was him, he drove her to it. Another nurse runs to investigate then goes off to get a doctor. A dozen semi-naked women patients cluster round the figure on the floor. Everyone is pricked with curiosity to see death.

At the very same moment, Jakub is making his goodbyes to his old friend Dr Skreta. He decides to come clean about Olga’s father. He was not the persecuted hero everyone believes him to have been, on the contrary. It was Olga’s father who sent him, Jakub, his best friend, to prison. In fact Olga’s father thought he was sending Jakub to his execution. Olga’s dad felt very heroic about it, because it showed that he could put the principles of the revolution above personal concerns.

Six months later he himself was arrested, tried and executed, and Jakub was eventually released. This revelation leads Skreta to make a complicated analysis of Jakub’s mixed motives in looking after the girl, but Jakub disagrees with it, and then they’re both getting into a big argument when the phone rings, Skreta picks it up and learns there’s an emergency over at the baths, he is needed.

Crucially, they don’t tell him that nurse Ruzena has dropped dead, and so he doesn’t tell Jakub. Instead they do a big handshake and part for ever, walk down the corridor and out of the building, Jakub makes for his car, and Dr Skreta hurries to the halls.

A police inspector has arrived at the scene. He is standing over the prostrate body interviewing witnesses and trying to keep the frantic Franta at bay, who keeps on yelling that he did it, he drove her to suicide. (And indeed, for the rest of his life, he will carry this conviction like the mark of Cain on his forehead.

There is now some sharp comedy for Dr Skreta demonstrates his superhuman ability to grasp a situation and say the best thing. Since Franta is so loudly claiming the baby was his, Skreta immediately falls in with this lie, and then explains to the inspector that Klima had accompanied her to the abortion clinic because he was doing a kindly deed and volunteering to appear to be the father, so that Ruzena wouldn’t be forced to marry Franta.

Jakub drives off in blissful ignorance of how his chance gesture with the poison pill played out. He spends three densely argued and highly intellectual pages worrying about the meaning of his act, and comparing it unfavourably with Raskolnikov’s famous murder in Crime and Punishment. Here, as elsewhere throughout his works, a Kundera character reflects that whereas in the old days life was heavy and tragic, now it seems almost unbearably light, as if it can blow away in a puff of wind. (p.171)

Klima has finally finished giving blood and walks briskly over to Dr Skreta’s office to find the doctor out. When the doctor finally walks in looking a bit ruffled, Klima grabs his hand and thanks him profusely, for playing such a great set on the drums, but for stage-managing the abortion committee so smoothly. Well, it turns out not to matter since Ruzena is dead.

Klima continues shaking the doctor’s hand, his mouth agape, his brain trying to process this news, which lifts the nightmare burden he’s been labouring under for so long. Quickly, Skreta fills him in. It looked like suicide, and her boyfriend has been telling everyone that a) he’s the father and b) she threatened to kill herself if he didn’t leave her alone. So – Skreta explains to Klima – on the spot he devised the story that Klima had done the chivalrous thing in accompanying Ruzena to the clinic, but was in no other way involved.

He’s in the clear! They shake hands a bit more then Klima leaves the office and staggers back to the room to meet his wife. He kisses her face and neck and shoulders and then sinks to the floor and kisses the hem of her skirt, God he is so grateful, more grateful than words can express. They carry the bags down into the car, and he asks her to drive back to Prague and all the way there her beauty fills the car like a fine fragrance.

But then we go over to her mind, and we see her slowly realising, for the first time, that maybe the only thing that holds her to Klima is her jealousy. But that strange man who stopped her in the park and simply told her she was beautiful before walking off… he made her think. She is beautiful, and strong and independent. If she overcame her obsessive jealousy of Klima what would be left? Precious little. For the first time she can envision a future without him. And she smiles.

And Klima, completely misinterpreting her smile, looks over at her smiling and is filled with love and relief.

The inspector

The last ten pages are taken up with a mixture of broad comedy, clever paradoxes and cunning reversals. Olga arrives in Bartleff’s apartment to find him, the inspector and Dr Skreta discussing the death. Bartleff is absolutely firm that the night before nurse Ruzena had undergone a spiritual experience unlike any other in her life, and had seen a world full of new possibilities, and that suicide is absolutely the last thing she would have done.

Several of his remarks irk the inspector who decides to put the American in his place by devoting a page to demonstrating how all the existing evidence could in fact be stacked up to prove in a court of law that Bartleff was the murderer, the motive being to shut the nurse up before Bartleff’s wife arrives later that day. A tense silence. Then the inspector laughs. He was just showing how evidence in such an ambiguous case can be twisted anyway you want (which makes a distant link with Jakub’s remarks at several places about ‘revolutionary justice’ which incarcerated him and thousands like him).

The inspector shakes hands and leaves and Bartleff goes to his room to change. Alone with Dr Skreta, suddenly Olga remembers the blue pill, the suicide pill, which Jakub showed her, could… might it… was that… She asks him straight out: Did he ever prepare a poison pill for Jakub?

‘That’s absolute nonsense. I never gave him anything of the kind,’ Dr Skreta replied with great firmness. Then Bartleff returned from the other room, wearing a different necktie, and Olga took her leave of both men. (p.182)

I love Dr Skreta.

And the end belongs to him. On the penultimate page, as he and Bartleff are strolling to the railway station to meet their wives, Skreta hesitantly asks if Bartleff can adopt him. Initially surprised, Bartleff lets himself be talked into it and announces it will be great fun.

And then, as the two wives get off the train and walk with their husbands, Mrs Bartleff shows them all her new baby. And they all comment on how very like Dr Skreta he looks, ha ha ha. But of course the reader knows this must be because Mrs Bartleff is yet another of his patients who he inseminated with his sperm. The baby really is his son! But also his brother, since Bartleff has just adopted him. And so the two happy couples walk from the train station towards the resort, laughing and joking about the brotherhood of man under a big autumn moon.

Thoughts

Clever, isn’t it? Very clever. Very beautifully assembled. Like a Swiss clock, with all the parts fitting together just so.

The Farewell Party is funny and a little mysterious (the blue halo and the saint) and thought provoking (Jakub’s political musings about human nature and betrayal), but in the end, there’s no getting around the fact that the central premise is how to shut up and repress a difficult woman, so all concerned can go back to their philandering ways – and that the only solution turns out to be killing her.

I came to really like Dr Skreta’s combination of eccentricity with his whip-smart ability to manage situations (the abortion committee, his immediate exculpation of Klima when he is called to the dead nurse). He was the purest comic creation, not least in his plan to create a real brotherhood of man by inseminating all his patients.

Jakub is a more complex creation, like a bitter ghost overthinking everything but, as always, I warmed to his accounts of the political repression of the country, and of the grim logic of revolutions i.e. people betray their best friends in order to show their revolutionary zeal.

I hoped right to the bitter end that the mystique surrounding Bartleff (blue halo, painter of saints, big hearty ability to put people at ease, the angelic little girl who appears at his dinner party…) would mean that he would somehow, magically, be able to revive Ruzena. After all, the point is made at the start of the novel that he has just painted a portrait of a saint named Lazarus, named after the man Jesus raised from the dead. I can’t overcome a deep sense of disappointment that this didn’t happen, that he didn’t somehow raise Ruzena from the dead… Maybe, on reflection, that is the point.

Klima is a cipher – the harassed philanderer. It’s often the minor characters which intrigue and linger in your mind. Mrs Klima – Kamila – doesn’t appear much but when she does her jealousy, her own status as once-famous actress, and her dawning realisation that she might be able to go it alone, these make for a potent character. And Olga is a minor character but has a lingering effect: Jakub is appalled that she takes their act of love so lightly; but in this she represents precisely the lightness and inconsequentiality of the young generation.


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

1967 The Joke
1969 Life Is Elsewhere
1969 Laughable Loves (short stories)

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

1984 The Unbearable Lightness of Being
1986 The Art of the Novel (essays)

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2000 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

Natalia Goncharova @ Tate Modern

Major retrospective

This is the UK’s first ever retrospective of the Russian avant-garde artist Natalia Goncharova. It’s huge, bringing together over 160 international loans which rarely travel, including works from Russia’s State Tretyakov Gallery which houses the largest collection of Goncharova’s work.

The exhibition is imaginatively laid out with some lovely rooms, and it certainly gives you a good sense of her range of styles, not only in painting, but in lithographs, fashion and costume design, especially for modern ballet, posters, pamphlets and much more. But it also leaves you with a few nagging questions…

Peasants Picking Apples by Natalia Goncharova (1911) State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019

Fabric design

Goncharova was born in Russia in 1881. She grew up on her family’s country estates in Tula province, 200 miles from Moscow. Her family were impoverished aristocrats who made their fortune through textiles, in fact the name of Goncharova’s family estate, Polotnianyi Zavod, means ‘cloth factory’. From early childhood, Goncharova witnessed the rhythms the farmers’ lives – working the land, planting and harvesting – and also became deeply familiar with all the stages of textile production, from shearing sheep to weaving, washing and decorating the fabric.

Hence two threads to her artistic practice:

  1. fabric design, which ran through the 1910s and led to her wonderful designs for the Ballets Russes in the 1920s and 30s, as well as commissions from fashion houses
  2. a profound feel for the rhythms of agricultural labour, which she depicted in a number of early paintings (like Peasants picking apples, above)

The first room epitomises both threads with several paintings showing agricultural labourers, in a highly modernist style, alongside a display case containing an example of the kind of traditional costume worn by the peasant women on Goncharova’s estate.

Installation view of Natalia Goncharova at Tate Modern

Cubo-futurism

What comes over is Goncharova’s very quick artistic development from about 1908, when she was doing stylised but essentially traditional paintings of peasant subjects, to 1911 when she had transformed herself into one of the leading lights of the Moscow avant-garde.

Her swift development was helped by two Moscow industrialists – Ivan Morozov and Sergei Shchukin – who had built up extensive art collections of leading European artists such as Cézanne, Gauguin, Picasso and Derain, and made their collections accessible to the public. These French works had an electrifying effect on young Russian avant-garde artists, which was accentuated by news of the new movement of Italian Futurism, which they could read about in international art magazines.

Goncharova swallowed both influences whole and became the leader of what contemporaries came to call Russian ‘cubo-futurism’. Various contemporaries are quoted commenting that she was the leader of the younger generation, not only in painting, but in self-presentation, creating an avant-garde ‘look’, as well as happenings, given walking through Moscow’s streets wearing stylised tribal markings on her face, or involved in volumes of avant-garde poetry published just before the Great War.

A work like Linen from 1913 seems to be a straight copy of Picasso-style cubism, cutting up an everyday domestic scene into fragments and pasting in some text, as if from a newspaper or advertising hoarding. The main differences from a cubist work by Picasso or Braques is that the text is in Russian, and the bright blue is completely unlike the cubist palette of browns and greys.

Linen (1913) by Natalia Goncharova. Tate © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019

The 1913 exhibition and ‘everythingism’

This exhibition feels logical and well designed, and features at least two particularly striking rooms. The first one is dedicated to recreating the landmark retrospective Goncharova was given in September 1913 at the Mikhailova Art Salon in Moscow. The 19193 show included more than 800 works (!) and was the most ambitious exhibition given to any Russian avant-garde artist up to that date. Goncharova was thirty-two years old.

The curators have brought together thirty big paintings which featured in the 1913 show and created a central column in the style of those circular bulletin boards you get in Paris, on which they have plastered copies of some of the posters and reviews of the original exhibition.

Here we learn that Goncharova’s fellow artist and long-time partner, Mikhail Larionov, invented the term ‘everythingism’ to describe her openness to diverse styles and sources, the way her paintings invoke all kinds of sources from the folk designs of her family farm, through to the latest ideas from Paris and Rome.

Thus the thing which comes over from the 30 or so works in this room is their tremendous diversity. There’s a striking female nude which reminded me of something similar by Matisse, there’s a pipe smoker at a table, a motif familiar from Cézanne, there’s a surprising work which looks like a dappled impressionist painting. It really is a little bit of everything and so ‘everythingism’ seems an accurate label.

You could claim this is as a positive achievement, indeed one of the wall labels praised the lack of ‘hierarchy’ in Goncharova’s diverse styles and I understood what they were getting at. There was the implication that it is somehow masculine to want to be the leader of the avant-garde, at the cutting edge, always one step ahead: and somehow a slave of capitalist or consumer culture to need to create a unique brand or style.

By contrast, Goncharova is praised for her more easygoing, unmasculine and uncapitalist stance – allowing herself to be open and receptive to all kinds of visual approaches, mixing Cézanne with Russian icons, or cubism with peasant designs, or futurism as applied to distinctly Russian cityscapes. She was presented as ‘a universal artist’.

You can see how, at the time, she seemed to contemporaries to be a one-woman explosion of all the latest visual breakthroughs and trends because she was covering so much territory.

The drawback of this approach is that Goncharova risks, in retrospect, appearing to be a Jill of all trades but a mistress of none. Lots of the works in this room were interesting but you found yourself thinking, ah, that’s the cubist influence, that’s the futurism, that’s a touch of Cézanne, and so on. They all had her mark, but not so many seemed entirely her, if that makes sense.

For me the most distinctive work in the room was the series of paintings she called Harvest, which was originally made up of nine large works which were designed to be hung together. Two have gone missing but Tate have hung the other seven together on one wall and the effect is stunning.

Harvest: Angels Throwing Stones on the City (1911) by Natalia Goncharova. State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019

The palette of red, orange and tan runs across all seven paintings and gives them a tremendous visual unity. Also note the highly stylised, almost child-like depiction of the human figure, with simplified arms and legs and big simple eyes. The same big wide white eyes with huge jet black irises which appear in Peasants picking apples. This is maybe her core visual style.

Harvest uses Christian motifs. It was inspired by popular prints and the frescoes in Russian cathedrals and takes its images from the Book of Revelation in which the end of the world is presented as a symbolic harvest with the grapes of human souls being gathered and thrown into the winepress of God’s anger.

All in all, surprisingly religious, unironically religious, for an avant-garde artist. It comes as no surprise to discover that room six of the exhibition is devoted to just her religious paintings, featuring half a dozen enormous works she did on Christian subjects, notably four tall narrow full-length portraits of the four evangelists. I can see the way she has applied her distinctive cubo-futurist style to a very traditional Russian subject – I note her characteristic way with big white eyes – but I didn’t really warm to them.

The Four Evangelists by Natalia Goncharova (1911)

Fashion and design

Room four picks up the theme of Goncharova the fashion designer, showing work commissioned from her by the couturier to the Imperial court, Nadezhda Lamanova, in 1911-12. This room also includes work commissioned from Goncharova after the war by Marie Cuttoli, whose design house Myrbor showcased carpets and fashion designs by famous contemporary artists.

There’s a series of sketches from the 1920s, haute couture-style sketches which make the women subjects look as tubular as a Fairy Liquid bottle, with no hips or waist or bust, which were utterly unlike her modernist paintings, and looked more or less like any other fashion sketches for stick-thin flappers from the Jazz Age.

But on the opposite wall was a piece which I thought might be my favourite from the whole show, a study Goncharova did for a textile design in the later 1920s. I loved the vibrancy of the colours and the primitiveness of the design. In fact it’s only one of a series she did using bird motifs but, to me, it was a standout piece.

Design with birds and flowers – Study for textile design for House of Myrbor 1925-1928 by Natalia Goncharova. State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019

The Great War

In April 1914, Goncharova and Larionov were invited to Paris by the famous ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev to work on designs for his opera-ballet The Golden Cockerel. This was presented in Paris to great acclaim and the pair followed it up with an exhibition. But then the Great War broke out, and both were forced to return to Moscow. Larionov was called up for military service and sent to the front line, was wounded within weeks and invalided out of the army.

Goncharova responded to the crisis by creating a series of prints titled Mystical Images of War which brought together symbols Britain, France and Russia together with images from the Book of Revelation and Russian medieval verse. They use her trademark stylisation of the human face and eyes, and throw in the religious iconography which we’ve by now realised was a big part of her psyche.

The fourteen or so prints on display in room five are a really interesting mix of modern warfare and traditional Orthodox iconography, featuring angels wrestling biplanes, the Virgin Mary mourning fallen soldiers, and the Pale Horse from the Apocalypse. She chose to create prints in order to reach a broad popular audience with what are, essentially, patriotic rallying cries, which also feature patriotic heroes who defended Mother Russia against invaders.

‘Angels and Aeroplanes’ from Mystical Images of War by Natalia Goncharova (1914) © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019

Books and photos

Room seven is a narrow corridor between the conventionally-shaped rooms six and eight. As in other exhibitions, this corridor makes a good space not to hang works of art, but to place books, pamphlets, photos, prints and posters related to the artist under review, in the long rack of display cases lining the wall.

For this exhibition the curators have displayed artist manifestos, exhibition catalogues and a number of books of poetry which Goncharova was involved in writing or designing or illustrating. The later part of the case displays the ephemera she produced for a series of artists’ balls in Paris, including posters, tickets and programmes. There’s a speaker on the wall from which comes a Russian voice reciting some of the avant-garde poetry included in the pamphlets on display. (It is, apparently zaum or ‘transrational’ poetry, from ‘World Backwards’ by Alexey Kruchenykh and Velimir Khlebnikov, and Vzorval or ‘Explodity’ also by Kruchenykh.)

Cubo-futurism

Room eight is devoted to another series of cubo-futurist works, highlighting classic Modernist-style depictions of factories and machines and cars and bicycles, all those implements of power and speed which were fetishised by the Italian founder of Futurism, Marinetti.

There are some great pieces here, classic Futurist depictions of machines and factories, a big painting of a bicyclist, another titled Aeroplane over a Train, and a vivid depiction of rowers on the river (which reminded me of the similar treatment given the same subject by Cyril Powers, the British printmaker, twenty years later, as featured in the current exhibition of the Grosvenor School of Modern Art at Dulwich Picture Gallery).

Cyclist (1913) by Natalia Goncharova (1881- 1962) State Russian Museum © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019

Admirable though many of these paintings were, I began to be nagged or puzzled by something. Usually in a major retrospective, you are shown samples of the artist’s work throughout their career. Goncharova was established as a leader of the Russian avant-garde by the time of her huge exhibition in 1913, and lived on until 1962, producing works well into the 1950s.

So where are they? Where are all the later works? Here we are in room eight of ten and we are still… only at 1913?

The first eight rooms of this ten-room survey have all hovered around the years 1910 to 1914. Nowhere does the exhibition say so explicitly, but are we to conclude from this lack of later content that her golden years were a brilliant but brief period, from 1911 to 1914 or 1915?

Goncharova in Paris

Only in this, the ninth and penultimate room, do we learn what happened to Goncharova as a result of the Russian Revolution, namely that she and Larionov were on a tour with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes through Switzerland, Italy and Spain when the October Revolution broke out. The revolution, and then the civil war, prevented them from returning home, and in 1919 Goncharova moved into a flat in Paris that would remain her home for the rest of her life.

This penultimate room contains half a dozen works from the 1920s during which Goncharova received more commissions for ballet costume, some from fashion houses (as mentioned earlier) and a few funky commissions for interior design, including an impressive painted screen made in 1928 for the American patron Rue Winterbotham Carpenter. She did the interior designs for the Paris house of Serge Koussevitsky, exploring the motif of the Spanish Lady on a monumental scale.

When she had accompanied the Ballet Russe in Spain, Goncharova had become fascinated by the clothes of the Spanish women she saw, and ‘the Spanish woman’ became a recurring motif in her inter-war years, maybe because the vividness and ethnic distinctiveness of the outfits reminded her of the Russian peasant look she knew so well.

By far the most impressive work was a huge abstract work titled Bathers from 1922. It is immense, at least fifteen feet across, and reminded me of all kinds of other modernist abstract painters though I couldn’t quite put my fingers on who. First time it’s ever been exhibited in the UK and a coup for the exhibition organisers.

Bathers by Natalia Goncharova (1922)

Ballet designs

Anyway, the point remains – why isn’t there more of her work from the 1920s, 30s, 40s and 50s? You might have expected the last room in the show to cover the later part of her career but, instead, the exhibition takes an unexpected detour to make this final room, arguably the best in the exhibition.

It is a big space which has been specially darkened to create an atmospheric setting in which to review Goncharova’s work for the ballet and the theatre. Lining the walls are drawings and sketches for costumes Goncharova designed for productions of The Golden Cockerel (Rimsky-Korsakoff) and Les Noces (Stravinsky). There are some videos of her costumes and backdrops being used in revivals of the ballets, The Golden Cockerel footage is a silent but colour film of a production dressed in Goncharova’s costumes which toured Australia in the late 1930s.

But the highlights of the room are four or five of the actual costumes themselves, the costumes Goncharova designed for these classic ballet productions, which are featured in display cases around the room. They are all wonderfully bright and imaginative, drawing on the (to us) exotic and fanciful traditions of Russian legend and folklore.

Theatre costume for Sadko (1916) by Natalia Goncharova. Victoria and Albert Museum, London © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019

And, last but not least, the room is filled with music, with clips from the famous ballet scores in question, wonderful Russian melodies filling the air as you stroll from wonderful costume to fascinating set designs, or stop to watch footage of actual performances using Goncharova’s colourful and vivid costumes.

The music, the darkened atmosphere, the videos of performances, and the glass cases of costumes – all make this room completely unlike the previous nine and a very evocative space to be in.

Summary

This is a major exhibition by a leading Russian artist who, for a period before the Great War, epitomised the avant-garde for her compatriots. She produced a lot of striking paintings, as well as pioneering designs for ballet costumes and sets, and a wealth of prints and posters and pamphlets and poetry books.

And yet I was left with two nagging questions: first, from such a profusion of images and designs, not that much really rang my bell. A lot of it was striking and thought-provoking and interesting – but possibly only the design with birds and flowers really set me alight.

The stylised human figures with those big eyes is the nearest Goncharova comes to having a recognisable ‘look’ and I liked it, but only up to a point. I actively disliked its application to the icons and evangelists and wasn’t, at the end of the day, that taken with the Great War prints, either.

Comparison with Käthe Kollwitz

Great War prints by a woman artist made me think of the epic prints created by the German woman artist Käthe Kollwitz. These are infinitely more powerful. Comparing the two made me think that maybe Goncharova was held back by her attachment to the Russian Orthodox tradition and its Christian iconography. Kollwitz, by contrast, has broken free of all traditional or religious straitjackets in order to create spartan images of humanity under stress which still speak to us today with horrifying force.

The Survivors by Käthe Kollwitz (1923)

Then again, maybe I’m comparing apples and oranges. Goncharova’s works were created at the very start of the war, when it was thought of as a religious crusade, and everyone thought it would be over by Christmas. Whereas Kollwitz’s haunting images were made nearly ten years later after not only bitter defeat, but collapse of the German state and descent into semi-civil war. So it’s not a fair comparison at all. But you can see why, if you set the two side by side – as we latecomers a hundred years later are able to – Kollwitz’s images are vital, a necessary record of a horrifying period; whereas Goncharova’s are an interesting and nice inclusion in a retrospective of her work, but have nowhere near the same importance or force.

Where is the later work?

And second, where was the work from the later years? Are we to deduce from its almost complete absence from this exhibition, that the curators consider Goncharova’s work from the 1930s, 40s and 50s to be poor or sub-standard? Or is it for some reason hard to borrow and assemble for an exhibition like this?

As far as I could see, the only work dating from either the 1940s or 1950s was one medium-size set design for Stravinsky’s ballet The Firebird, which Goncharova drew in 1954.

Set design for the final scene of The Firebird by Natalia Goncharova (1954) Victoria and Albert Museum, London © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2019

I thought this was brilliant, vivid and fun, in a completely different style from everything which preceded it, like a highly stylised illustration for a children’s book. So is this what Goncharova’s work from the 1950s looked like?

Having devoted eight or so rooms to going over with a fine tooth comb the intricacies of her output from 1911 to 1915 or so, it’s a shame we didn’t get at least one room telling us what happened to her style in the entire last thirty years of her career.

Video

‘Visiting London Guide’ produce handy two-minute video surveys of all London’s major exhibitions. I include them in my blog because they give you an immediate sense of what the exhibition looks like.

Curators

Natalia Goncharova is curated by Natalia Sidlina, Curator of International Art, and Matthew Gale, Head of Displays, with Katy Wan, Assistant Curator, Tate Modern.


Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

BP Portrait Award 2019 @ the National Portrait Gallery

According to the press release: ‘The BP Portrait Award is the most prestigious portrait painting competition in the world and represents the very best in contemporary portrait painting.’

With a first prize of £35,000, and a total prize fund of £74,000, it attracts entries from all over the world. This year there were 2,538 entries from which the judges selected a short list of forty-four and, back in June, selected a first, second and third prize winner, as well as a BP Young Artist Award and a BP Travel Award.

The competition has been taking place every summer for forty years (thirty under the sponsorship of BP) and is a fixture in the London art calendar. Certainly, I’ve been going every year for a while.

Installation view of the BP Portrait Award 2019 exhibition with a characteristic sprinkling of gallery goers – older, white, and mostly female

Four quick and obvious points:

1. In previous years the short-listed works have been displayed in rooms at the back of the gallery, which feel big and airy. This year they’re all in the small gallery which you enter from the landing (the exhibition is, incidentally, FREE) and this space somehow made it feel pokier and smaller…

2. As I’ve mentioned in my reviews of previous shows, no-one is smiling let alone laughing. Everyone looks stony-faced and serious, which makes for an oddly downbeat experience.

3. Also, as I’ve pointed out before, almost all the subjects are friends of, partners of, daughters or sons or fathers or mothers of, the artist — which, after a while, gives anyone reading all the wall labels a slightly claustrophobic sense of being in a small, incestuous world of like-minded liberals and bien-pensant artists, their friends and families. A small and very passive, inactive world. A world where people sit still with unchanging expressions…

Conservative and traditional

4. And this brings me to the fourth, and most directly art-related point, which is… how very very conservative almost all the art on display is. Of the forty-four images only about three departed in any way from conventional figurative oil painting. There was one collage, a sort of photographic negative… um. In fact a list of the ‘modernist’ works would amount to:

A few had a cartoon-like simple-mindedness, which I sort of liked (Davetta by Natalie Voelker, Passion Fruit by Luis Ruocco) and most of the rest were good, sometimes very good – but almost all straight-down-the line, easy and accessible figurative oil paintings.

Here is a portrait of Ezra Pound done by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska in 1917, just over one hundred years ago.

Drawing of Ezra Pound by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska (1917)

It was a quick sketch done from life and represents everything I love about the first heroic era of Modernism about the time of the Great War, which is its tremendous energy and confidence. What a blaze of personality is captured in a handful of brushstrokes! I don’t know why this image popped into my head as I walked around the BP gallery but, once it had, I couldn’t help feeling that this one drawing contains more energy and life than all forty-four entries in this display put together.

Here is an online gallery of the 44 paintings in the exhibition.

A personal selection

You can surf the gallery and select whichever works light your candle or pull your daisy. My own opinion changed as I strolled between them, liking now this now that work, in a lazy summer Saturday kind of way, but three I grew to particularly like are:

Jenne by Manu Kaur Saluja

Jenne by Manu Kaur Saluja © Manu Kaur Saluja

Hyper-realistic it may be but, looking at it for a while, I became more and more beguiled by the use of turquoise – always a favourite colour of mine – in the tiles behind the sitter, and in her face, under her left eye, on her neck. The more I looked, the more I liked the very complicated play of colour Saluja uses to create what many people mistake for ‘white’ skin, which is, in fact, nothing of the kind.

Rumination by Frances Bell

Rumination by Frances Bell © Frances Bell

Fantastically traditional in style, this reminded me of the exhibition of Russian art from the end of the 19th century which the NPG held three years ago. It could be a young Tolstoy with his shirt off after a hard day pretending to be a peasant. Instead it is Edd, a friend of the artist’s, admirably skinny and bearded and with an impressive arm tattoo.

Ninety Years by Miguel Angel Oyarbide

Ninety Years by Miguel Angel Oyarbide © Miguel Angel Oyarbide

Like all Western nations, we have an ageing population (I am aging as I write this, are you aging as you read it?) – a fact which is rarely reflected in art or the intersection of art and music and advertising and fashion, all of which fetishise youth.

I grew up in a village which was full of old people, in the village shop where they came to congregate and chat each day, itself opposite a Victorian priory which had been converted into an old people’s home and us kids were regularly dragged off to visit some of the bed-ridden old ladies our mum had got to know.

I have seen so many Hollywood movies and adverts and TV shows where sexy young things get their kit off, allowing the camera to linger on their smooth burnished curves or muscular torsos. It is, quite simply, a relief from the oppressive world of photoshopped youth, to come to this painting and admire an extremely skilful depiction of age. Look at the light on the side of her face, and the liver spots on her forehead, and the dense wrinkling of her hand (she still uses nail polish). The narrow shoulders and the amazing way the artist has captured the fabric of the subject’s cardigan.

Isn’t it a bit hypocritical of me to claim to admire dashing modernist works and yet to end up choosing three very conventional pieces as my favourites? No. My point is precisely that there is hardly anything ‘modern’ available in this selection, and that what there is struck me as echoes of modernist approaches which were done much better, generations ago. You don’t order steak at a vegan restaurant. I chose what I liked from what was on offer.

Which ones do you like?


Related links

Reviews of other National Portrait Gallery exhibitions

Lee Krasner: Living Colour @ Barbican Art

‘I like a canvas to breathe and be alive. Be alive is the point.’ Lee Krasner

On 11 ‎August 1956 the world-famous artist and leader of the school of Abstract Expressionism, Jackson Pollock, crashed his Oldsmobile convertible while driving drunk. His wife of 11 years, Lee Krasner, also an accomplished artist, heard the news while away in Europe, and hurried home to New York to sort out the arrangements for his funeral and Pollock’s affairs.

Lee Krasner at the WPA Pier, New York City, where she was working on a WPA commission (c. 1940) Photo by Fred Prater. Lee Krasner Papers, c.1905-1984

She moves into the big barn

Ten years earlier, and soon after marrying (in 1945), the couple had moved to the Springs area of East Hampton on the south shore of Long Island, and bought a wood-frame house and barn, which they converted into studios.

Of the buildings at their disposal, Pollock had early on nabbed the biggest available space – the barn – as a studio, and it was here that he created many of the masterpieces that made his name in the later 1940s and early 1950s. Sometime in 1957, the year after his death, Krasner moved Pollock’s paints and equipment out of the big barn and her own stuff in, and began to paint in the largest space she’d ever had at her disposal.

The result is a decade’s worth of quite extraordinarily powerful and enormous abstract paintings which make up the core of the major retrospective of Lee Krasner’s art, which is currently being held at the Barbican Centre in London. They are absolutely stunning. Breathtaking. Wonderful. Huge!

Installation view of Another Storm (1963) by Lee Krasner at the Barbican. Photo by the author

A light and airy space

For this exhibition the Barbican has removed some of the partitions which usually divide up the main ground floor exhibition space, and also removed some of the temporary walls which previously concealed wall-sized windows in the exhibition shop and at the end of the main gallery. The combined effect of this decluttering is to make the big central space (technically ‘room 10’ of the exhibition) feel long and bright and airy. From the moment you arrive at the ticket desk, the new lighter, brighter space feels like the perfect environment in which to hang Krasner’s huge and awe-inspiring works.

It is a genuinely uplifting and life-affirming experience to wander among these paintings, I felt like a mortal wandering dazzled through a mansion of the gods.

Siren by Lee Krasner (1966) Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation. Photo by Cathy Carver

Her early years in self portraits

The exhibition is arranged in broadly chronological order, and you are directed to start on the upper floor of the Barbican galleries, which houses eight living-room-sized spaces. These eight rooms take us from Krasner’s birth, in 1908, in New York, into a family of Orthodox Jewish Russian émigrés, and onto the early art school training she got (at the Women’s Art School at Cooper’s Union, Art Students League, National Academy of design. From her student days there’s a room of self-portraits in oil, which are OK.

Nudes classical and modern

After the Wall Street Crash of 1929 (when she was 21) Krasner began training as a teacher and attended life school classes. On one wall of room four are the extremely accomplished nude studies she did in the style of the Renaissance Masters in 1933 – very accomplished, very traditional. On the opposite wall is a selection of charcoal nudes she did just six years later, in 1939, which are completely different in style, riven by big abstract angular lines, showing a complete assimilation of European modernist trends.

By 1942 she was a respected member of New York’s artistic community. She had been included in an exhibition of contemporary painting in New York alongside friends Willem de Kooning and Stuart French. Piet Mondrian admired her work. As a result she was given a number of commissions by President Roosevelt’s Public Works of Art Project, including a job to oversee the design and execution of twenty department-store window displays in Manhattan advertising war training courses. She adopted a cut-up-and-paste collage approach, and room five shows blow-ups of photos of these wartime artworks. Well, sort of interesting as a) social history b) if you really a completist looking for evidence of every step of her artistic development.

The Little Images

She knew most of the exhibitors in that 1942 show except one, a guy named Jackson Pollock, so she dropped round to his Greenwich Village studio to seek him out and say hi. One thing led to another and they were married in 1945. They moved to the farm on Long Island and, in the winter of 1947, Krasner embarked on what became known as the ‘Little Images’ series, abstract paintings made up of tightly meshed squares and shapes which some critics described as ‘hieroglyphic’. Rooms one and two kick off the show with some fine examples of these ‘Little Images’ and it’s amazing what a variety of design and visual effect you can achieve from such a seemingly simple premise.

Composition (1949) by Lee Krasner © Philadelphia Museum of Art

The collage paintings

Krasner was given her first one-woman show at the Betty Parsons Gallery in October 1951. The work didn’t sell and, although she began a new series soon afterwards, she quickly became despondent and ended up tearing some of the new work to shreds in frustration.

Weeks later, returning to the studio, she realised that the torn strips lying about on the floor got her juices flowing. Quickly she began incorporating them into a new series of collages. She layered pieces of fabric over the paintings shown at the Betty Parsons show, adding pieces of burlap, torn newspaper, heavy photographic paper and some of Pollock’s discarded drawings. The resulting ‘collage paintings’ were exhibited in another gallery show in 1955, and there are several rooms of them on display here.

Blue Level (1955) by Lee Krasner © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation. Photo by Diego Flores

Strikingly different from the ‘Little Images’, aren’t they? The very tightly-wound hieroglyphs of the Images are completely different from the violently torn strips of the collages.

Prophecies

In the summer of 1956 Krasner began work on a new series. The dominant tone of pink made me think of human flesh and nudes, but nudes severely chopped up and filtered via Demoiselles d’Avigon-era Picasso.

The first example of this new style was on Krasner’s easel when she left for France that summer. In the first half of their marriage, her husband’s career had gone from strength to strength, peaking around 1951, as he became world famous for his ‘drip paintings’, getting on the front cover of Time magazine, promoted by the American government as a home-grown genius, snapped up by collectors. But when, after 1951, Pollock tried to change this winning formula, he met with incomprehension and sales slumped. Pollock lost confidence, his drinking increased, he began an affair, which Krasner knew about, in early ’56.

That was the troubled background to the first of these flesh paintings and then – mid-way through her visit to Europe, she got the call that he had died in the car crash. Just weeks after the funeral, Krasner returned to the style and quickly made three more big, torn-up flesh paintings which she titled Prophecy, Birth, Embrace and Three In Two.

In the last room of the first floor of the exhibition, these four paintings are reunited, one hanging on each of the four walls, and it is impossible not to be powerfully affected by their eerie, agonised power.

Prophecy (1956) by Lee Krasner © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation. Courtesy Kasmin Gallery, New York. Photo by Christopher Stach

The night journeys

So Jackson dies and Lee moves into the big barn studio and she is afflicted with insomnia and can only work at night, and she decides not to use any colour in her new paintings because she prefers to judge colours by daylight – and so, from the late 1950s, Krasner began to make a series of paintings combining just black and umber and creamy white onto huge, unstretched canvases.

Wow! These are great swirling, turd-coloured pieces, full of energy and despair. A poet friend of hers labelled them ‘Night Journeys’ and to follow any of the angled, curved or circular lines which strike across the surface is, indeed, to go on a churning, bitter journey though a landscape in torment.

Polar Stampede (1960) by Lee Krasner. Doris and Donald Fisher Collection, San Francisco MoMA © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation. Courtesy Kasmin Gallery, New York.

Krasner exhibited these big brown works in 1960 and 1962 to critical praise, and half a dozen of them dominate the first half of the enormous ground floor space in this show. You can stand in front of them, or there are benches where you can sit down, meditate on them, and be drawn into their drama and action.

Primary series

But the jewel in the crown is the Primary series. In the early 1960s Krasner replaced umber with a range of vivid primary colours. When she broke her right arm in a fall, she taught herself to work with her left, squirting paint directly from the tube, using her right hand to guide the movements.

Critics often use the word ‘gesture’ or ‘gestural’ but in this case it really is justified. As you follow the great sweeping arcs and patterns of paint, and note their dribbles and dynamic interactions, you can almost feel and see the great sweeps of the arm they must have required, the leaning of the whole body, the straining, the movement from one zone of focus to the next. They are extraordinarily vibrant and exciting paintings.

Icarus (1964) by Lee Krasner. Thomson Family Collection, New York © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation. Courtesy Kasmin Gallery, New York. Photo by Diego Flores

I couldn’t get enough of these paintings. I wandered up and down the central room, enjoying all the views of the works offset against each other, glimpsed behind the one central supporting wall of the main exhibition space, addressed front on, strolled past, studied up close, looked at from the other side of the room.

Wow! What a space, and what works of staggering brilliance to fill them with!

Later works

The Umber paintings and the Primary series cover the decade from the late 50s to the late 60s. What a brilliant decade it was for her.

Then, in 1968 Krasner discovered a stash of handmade paper in the farmhouse, and decided to make a new series of works, on a much, much, much smaller scale. She decided to experiment by making each of these small, crafted works from just one or two pigments. A dozen or so of them are in a room off to one side (room 11).

They require a completely different way of looking. Much more conventional in size they require the viewer to step forwards and examine the detail, rather than step back and admire the scale, as with the Primary series.

The dozen or so examples on display here are all lovely – free-spirited dances of colour, and interplays of defined brushstrokes against broader washes, all given a wonderful background texture by virtue of the expensive paper they’re painted on.

Untitled (1969) by Lee Krasner © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation. Courtesy Kasmin Gallery, New York

In the early 1970s, Krasner made a significant step change in style. Still completely abstract, her works changed from soft biomorphic shapes to hard-edged abstract forms. I found them a shock to the system after the huge works in the central hall.

I liked even less the works in the final room, dating from 1974. In that year she stumbled across a portfolio of work from her art school days, the kind of angular nude studies which we saw examples of way back in room four.

Now Krasner took a pair of scissors to these early studies and cut them up into jagged shapes. Most of the source material was black and white drawings, but she interspersed some coloured strips into the collages, and also left other areas blank, apparently ‘echoing the empty space around the nude model’ which had served as the subject for many of the original drawings.

They were exhibited in 1977 under the title Eleven Ways To Use The Words To See. I didn’t warm to them.

Imperative (1976) by Lee Krasner © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation. Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

No, I went back up to the first floor and walked back through the eight rooms soaking up the evolution of those early works and admiring, in particular, the ‘Little Images’ series. And I revisited the rooms holding these later 1970s works, trying to give them the benefit of the doubt — but all the time I just wanted to go back into the massive main gallery space and be swept off my feet and ravished all over again by the huge, vibrant, dancing works of the 1960s.

Summary

This is the first European retrospective of Lee Krasner’s career for over 50 years. It brings together nearly 100 works from some 50 galleries, institutions and  private collections. It must have been a labour of love to assemble them all, and was totally worth it.

The exhibition ends with a 15-minute video made up from various interviews with Krasner towards the end of her life. She was one tough lady, and she told it like it was, still, in her 70s, harbouring a bitter resentment at the sexism of the New York art world which she had to combat all her career.

If you start reading up about her life you quickly find people claiming that, far from being overshadowed by her famous husband, Krasner was in fact the driving force behind his career. And, from some of the interviews, you get the impression that, having seen what really high-profile high pressure publicity did to an artist (Pollock), she was quite content to avoid that level of scrutiny, and just get on with what she loved doing.

The publicity material accompanying the exhibition quotes the playwright Edward Albee commenting at her memorial at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, that in both her life and her work, Krasner ‘looked you straight in the eye, and you dared not flinch’.

That seems a perfect description of both a tough lady, and of her extraordinarily resolute, exuberant and unsentimental art.

A short film about Lee Krasner


Related links

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Barbican

And concerts

Sleepless by France-Lise McGurn @ Tate Britain

Art Now is a series of free exhibitions at Tate Britain showcasing emerging talent and highlighting new developments in British art. It is generally held in the big exhibition room on your right, next to the rotunda, once you’ve gone up the stairs and through the main entrance to Tate Britain.

This big, white, well-lit room is currently hosting a site-specific exhibition by Glasgow-based artist France-Lise McGurn (born 1983).

Figurative outlines of people

McGurn mostly works with paint, and draws people, slender outlines of people caught in various postures and actions, often dancing, leaping, twisting, turning. That’s certainly what the work here looks like – light and elegant drawings of naked people — in the detail below, apparently bending stretching walking sitting – and these sketchy outlines are treated with random washes of primary colours applied in broad brushstrokes or patches.

Installation view of Art Now: France-Lise McGurn: Sleepless at Tate Britain, 2019. Photo by Tate Photography

In a big white room

The room is big and light and airy. The walls are painted white and there are big skylights. I went on a sunny day. The overwhelming visual and psychological impact was of LIGHT and airiness. It felt lovely just to walk around the room, glancing now and then at the figures dancing on the wall. They felt like a sort of 21st century version of a Renaissance frieze except that the great majority of the wall had been left a pure and cleansing white.

Installation view of Art Now: France-Lise McGurn: Sleepless at Tate Britain, 2019. Photo by Tate Photography

Interplay between canvas and wall

A lot of the figures – dancing, bending, posing, sitting amid blotches and spatters of yellow and orange paint – have been painted directly onto the wall. Presumably this is what it means to say the work is ‘site-specific’ in the sense that, eventually, when it ends, they will all be painted over.

Except for the half a dozen or so canvases, ranging in size from medium to very, very large, which are stuck to the walls. These canvases partake of the bigger pattern i.e. they are composed of line drawings of people in motion, with washes of paint which start on the canvas and wash over onto the walls, joining them to the bigger configuration.

On the whole, though, looking closely, it seemed to me that the figures and compositions on the canvases were more densely drawn and painted. They felt like the nexuses of the composition, out of which, and between which, flowed lines of energy. Focal points.

Installation view of Art Now: France-Lise McGurn: Sleepless at Tate Britain, 2019. Photo by Tate Photography

Curators and sex

So the whole thing gave me the impression of light and airiness and dancing and happiness. Being in this room made me smile.

However, McGurn is a woman, and the curator of the installation is a woman, and so I was not at all surprised to learn, when I wandered over to the wall label, that the installation is actually all about sexuality and the body.

Much more so than their male equivalents, contemporary women artists are very often concerned with the body and sex, often with their own bodies, quite often with taking their clothes off to expose their own bodies, examine their own bodies, question their own bodies.

Both women artists and women curators are often obsessed with sex and gender in a way the rest of the world is not and in a way which has the effect of narrowing and limiting and confining responses and ideas and feelings and the imagination. This is what the curator writes:

McGurn draws on a collected archive of found imagery to create figurative installations which express notions of sexuality, ecstasy, loss and consciousness. The new body of work presented in Sleepless explores the experience of living in a city as one that is intimate and inherently sexual. The exhibition title itself evokes key themes in McGurn’s work, including partying, dreams, longing, motherhood and nostalgic popular culture, recalling the 1993 romantic comedy Sleepless in Seattle.

Hmmm it is mildly interesting to learn that the piece is named after Sleepless in Seattle – although what these perfect, mute, rather Greek god-like figures have to do with very non-Greek-looking Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks is not immediately obvious. But:

‘The experience of living in a city as one that is intimate and inherently sexual.’

Hmmm. As you crowd onto the Tube at rush hour, as you wait for a bus in the rain, as you walk past deafening roadworks, as you breathe in the toxic mix of diesel fumes and carbon particulates… does your experience of living in the city strike you as being ‘inherently sexual’? Or  ‘intimate?’

My querying of these kinds of curatorial descriptions isn’t motivated by anti-intellectualism or anti-feminism. It’s that:

1. So often their descriptions of human existence seem wildly at odds with the experiences of myself, my family and everyone I know. I just asked my son if his experience of living as a student in the big city of Bristol struck him as ‘intimate and inherently sexual?’ I cannot reprint what he said. He thought I was mad.

2. More importantly, my view is that this kind of stock-in-trade obsession with sexuality, gender and identity, this kind of standardised, boilerplate rhetoric about sexuality and desire, actually conceals and masks the art itself. The art itself is made up of lines and patterns and colours. The ‘subject matter’ is an important part of it, no doubt (although learning that the title comes from Sleepless in Seattle narrows and limits and brings your experience of the wall paintings down to a very specific time and place and cultural reference with a bit of a thump).

But the art itself is a matter of lines and patterns and colours and surfaces which, as you follow them with your eyes, begin to make your imagination flow and bend and soar along with them. And as they spill over from the canvas you feel a lovely sense of freedom and unconfinedness, and as some of them dance up towards the sunny skylights you feel a wonderful sense of openness and freedom.

For me, far more important than any amount of guff about the inherent sexiness of ‘the city’ is the dynamic visual and tactile effect created by the contrast between the painted walls and the more composed canvases which stud them. That juxtaposition is visually and imaginatively exciting.

What irritates me about the way so many curators and wall labels and guides write about art is that they cramp and confine it by imposing narrow social definitions and ideas and fashionable ‘issues’ onto it, instead of attempting to explain how the art is made, and the effect it has on us. Not on our Guardian-reading social consciences, with their narrow Pavlovian responses to trigger words like gender and sexuality and race and refugees and equality and the male gaze, and the rest of contemporary art scholarship’s fantastically small and limited little box of woke issues.

But where art should and generally does work – deep down in the imagination, the soul, the spirit, the unconscious, the preconscious, on our feelings, on our feel for pattern and colour and the sometimes very fleeting moods and responses they trigger in us.

The actual art of Sleepless made me want to fly, I felt beguiled by the strange and unexpected whorls of lines and the dancing figures, which shimmer across the walls, some of them rising up into the sunlit sky.

The curator commentary on it brought me down to earth with a painful bump, thumping my mind with the worst kind of artspeak clichés.

I met a man at a dinner party the other day who goes to even more art exhibitions than me. He told me he has stopped reading any of the wall labels of any exhibitions of contemporary art, because he finds them so irritatingly narrow and repetitive and limiting. Although, by doing so, you risk missing out on important information, I’m beginning to think he’s got the right idea. That you should go to an art exhibition and just respond to the art without any interference from the curators and guides imposing their obsessive concerns with gender and race onto the visitor.

Demographics

This exhibition is FREE to stroll in, around and out of, and certainly isn’t worth going to Tate Britain just for itself – but if you’re going to Tate Britain anyway, you should make the effort to seek it out.

When I went at about noon on a weekday, there was one other person in the room.

Curators

Art Now: France-Lise McGurn: Sleepless is curated by Zuzana Flaskova.


Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

Frank Bowling @ Tate Britain

‘Just throw the paint, Spencer!’
(Frank Bowling to his assistant, Spencer Richards, as told by Richards on the exhibition’s visitor audioguide)

This is a really good exhibition. Bowling isn’t a genius – this show doesn’t compare with the van Gogh exhibition downstairs at Tate Britain – but he is a consistently interesting and experimental artist, who has produced a steady stream of big, colourful and absorbing paintings. I found it hard to finally leave, and kept going back through the rooms to look again at the best paintings in the show.

Frank Bowling

Frank Bowling is a black British artist. He is still going strong, painting every day at the impressive age of 85.

Frank Bowling. Photo by Alastair Levy

Bowling was born in Guyana in 1934 and moved to England with his parents in 1950, when he was 15. After experimenting with poetry, and doing his National Service, Bowling decided to pursue a career in art and studied at the Royal College of Art. His contemporaries were David Hockney, Derek Boshier, Allen Jones, R. B. Kitaj and Peter Phillips. In fact, at graduation in 1962, Hockney was awarded the gold medal while Bowling was given the silver.

Back in those early years he was caught up in the expectation that he would be a ‘black’ artist and concern himself with colonial and post-colonial subjects – an expectation, he admits in modern interviews, that he at first played along with, doing a painting of African politician Patrice Lumumba and in 1965 at the First World Festival of Negro Arts, held in Senegal, winning the Grand Prize for Contemporary Arts.

It was only when he moved to New York in the mid-1960s that Bowling discovered the light and space and artistic freedom of contemporary American art. Encouraged by American critics, he changed his style, adopting the prevailing mode of abstract art, alongside the likes of Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman.

As Bowling’s assistant, Spencer Richards, tells us on the visitor’s audioguide: ‘he didn’t want to be hemmed in by race and origins and that kind of stuff.’

This is the first major retrospective ever held of Bowling’s work in Britain. The gallery says it is ‘long overdue’ and seeing that he was elected a member of the Royal Academy of Arts in 2005 and awarded an OBE as long ago as 2008, it does seem extraordinary that this is the first major retrospective devoted to his work.

Nine rooms

The exhibition is in straightforward chronological order. It is divided into nine rooms each of which addresses a particular phase or style. But as I’ll explain later, in fact the show can be divided into two halves – flat surfaces, and gunky, gooey, three-D surfaces.

Room 1 Early work

This selection of early paintings includes works heavily influenced by Francis Bacon, the number one British artist in the early 1960s. Blurred figures trapped in cages look as if they’ve just been blasted by radiation.

Other early works use geometric patterns, referencing the Op Art (i.e. the playful use of geometric shapes) of Bridget Riley.

This room features some examples from a series he did using the motif of a swan, its neck and head realistic, but its body exploding, as it were, into abstraction, set against neat geometrical figures – note the orange and green concentric circles which have kind of melted, to the right of the swan’s body. If you look closely you can see that Bowling has mashed real bird feathers into the bloody, messy splurge of pain on the right. Unsettling.

Swan 1 (1964) by Frank Bowling © Frank Bowling

Room 2 Photographs into paintings

It was the Swinging Sixties. The room contains the original Observer magazine front cover of a Japanese model in a Mary Quant dress typical of the period.

Cover Girl (1966) by Frank Bowling © Frank Bowling. All rights reserved DACS 2019

Very reminiscent of David Hockney’s kind of ‘wrecked Pop Art’ of the period i.e. taking images from fashion and pop culture and kind of smearing and subverting them. More obvious is the ghostly outline of the house at the top. What is that? It is based on a photo of the big house which contained the Bowling family business (Bowling’s Variety Store) back in his home town of New Amsterdam, Guyana.

A friend sent Bowling the photo (the original is on display in one of the several display cases devoted to notes and letters and magazines and other ephemera which shed light on his career) and he used it obsessively in a whole series of paintings which contain the house motif superimposed on maps and abstract shapes. We can guess that this obsessive repetitiveness derives from a psychological need on the part of the artist to revisit the house, and by extension, the land of his parents. On the other hand – maybe it is just a powerful image or motif which he was interested in placing in different paintings, juxtaposing with other images to create the dynamism and energy of any collage.

Room 3 The map paintings

These are enormous. Suddenly we are in a huge white room on the walls of which are hung some truly enormously huge paintings. They are made of acrylic paint on flat canvas. In the second half of the 1960s Bowling was in New York and liberated by the scale and ambition of American painting, especially the abstract expressionists like Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman and Clyfford Still.

Just like them, the works are enormous and almost abstract, covered in great washes of paint, to create dynamic forcefields of colour.

Installation View of Frank Bowling at Tate Britain. Photo by Matt Greenwood

The gallery guide points out that almost all of them contain maps and that they mark ‘Bowling’s rejection of the western-centric cartography of many world maps’. I think this is wrong, and a typical attempt to shoehorn politically correct sentiment into the art. It stands to reason that many of the paintings feature a map of South America. Bowling is from Guyana which is in South America. And some of the others feature the ghostly stencilled outline of Africa. Ultimately he is of African heritage.

But quite a few of the others – like Dog Daze (1971, on the left in the photo above) feature a map of the entire world, laid out according to standard convention, exactly as you see it in any atlas or poster – with the Americas at the left, then the Atlantic, then Eurasia with Africa dangling down. Not subverting or rejecting anything in particular. I bought the audioguide to the exhibition and this contains quite a few quotes from the man himself, and Bowling makes it perfectly clear time and again, that his art is not about a ‘subject’.

Art is to do with painting colour and structure

If there are maps in the huge map paintings it is not to make the kind of politically correct, left-wing, political point which the curators want him to make. It is because they offer a motif around which the art can constellate and come into being. It enables the art. Its force is not political, it is imaginative.

For sure maps can be given meanings. I can paint an outline of Africa and declare it is ‘about’ slavery. Or empire and colonialism. Or oppression. Or poverty. Or the fight for independence. or about war. Or about dance and music. Or about anything I want it to ‘mean’. Then again, maps may just be shapes and patterns which are interesting and stimulating, as shapes, as a well-remembered shapes from schooldays, but which carry precisely as much freight and meaning as the viewer wishes to give them.

Some of these works are stunning, comparable to the Rothko room at Tate Modern, big enough for the visitor to fall into, to meditate on, to create a mood of profound calm and wonder.

At one end of the room is a stunning work titled Polish Rebecca, dating from 1971. You can make out the stencilled shape of South America at the centre and the wall label tells us that the Rebecca in question was a Polish Jewish friend of Bowling’s, and that the work is a meditation on the shared history of the African and Jewish diaspora – revealing ‘Bowling’s interest in the way identities are shaped by geo-politics and displacement’.

To me this is reading the liberal political concerns of 2019 back into a painting from 48 years ago. Maybe it is so. Maybe not. What’s not in doubt is that it is a stunning composition, dominated all the tints and shades of purple, the strange beguiling white feathering effect spreading up the west coast of South America, and the random swishes of green, blue and orange paint. In the flesh this enormous painting is utterly entrancing.

Polish Rebecca (1971) by Frank Bowling. Courtest of the Dallas Museum of Art © Frank Bowling

Room 4 The poured paintings

As if to prove that Bowling is more interested in art than in bien-pensant, liberal, progressive political theory, the next room is devoted to paintings with absolutely no figurative content. He set up a tilting platform that allowed him to pour paint from heights of up to two metres. As the paint hit the canvas it cascaded down in streams of mingling colour.

Ziff (1974) by Frank Bowling. Private collection, London, courtesy of Jessica McCormack © Frank Bowling. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2019

Structured accident, not unlike the spatter paintings of Jackson Pollock and then the hundreds of random spurting spattering throwing flicking shooting artists of the experimental 1960s and 70s. The titles also became less meaningful, more accidental, referencing people who were in his thoughts or events during the day, totally random.

Room 5 – Cosmic Space

Each new room has been marked by technical experimentation. In this once are works from the later 1970s where he began a set of further experiments. He began using ammonia and pearlessence, and applied splotches of paint by hand, producing marbling effects. He embraced accidents, which sometimes hardened into mannerisms. For example it was at this time that he took to leaving buckets of pain on the surface of the wet canvas, creating a circular ridge.

In Ah Susan Whoosh Bowling added water, turpentine and ammonia to the acrylic paint to create complicated chemical reactions. He poured the paint directly onto the canvas and then manipulated it with a squeegee. The technique forced him to work quickly, making strategic decisions to exploit the random combination of elements. It’s testimony to his skill that so many of these works, created under demanding conditions, with little or no planning, come out looking so haunting and powerful.

Ah Susan Whoosh (1981) by Frank Bowling. Private Collection, London

No reproduction can convey the shiny metallic tint of many of the colours, the sparkle on the surface of the paintings, which changes as you walk around them.

Three D

This brings me to the big divide in Bowling’s career which I mentioned at the start. The first four or five rooms are full of works where the paint lies more of less flat on the canvas. But in latter part of his career, from about 1980, and certainly in the last four rooms, Bowling’s canvases become thick and clotted three-dimensional artefacts.

He started using acrylic gel to create waves and ridges of colour and goo. And he started embedding objects in the paint. At first he used acrylic foam, cut into long strips, creating zoomorphic swirls and spirals.

In fact the ribbed nature of this foam reminded me a bit of fish skeletons, and the way some of these skeletal ruins emerge from a thick goo of paint, reminded me sometimes of the movie Alien. According to the wall labels:

Bowling also started to use a range of other materials and objects in his work. He applied metallic pigments, fluorescent chalk, beeswax and glitter to his densely textured surfaces. In several works, found objects such as plastic toys, packing material, the cap of a film canister and oyster shells are embedded within the paint. These items are rarely fully visible but add to the complexity and mysterious quality of the work.

Spreadout Ron Kitaj (1984–6) by Frank Bowling. Tate © Frank Bowling. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2019

Spreadout Ron Kitaj is so named because the artist Ron Kitaj saw an exhibition of Bowling’s works in 1986 and got in touch. Bowling describes the strips of acrylic foam he embeds in the surface of works like that as ‘the ribs of the geometry from which I work.’ The painting also includes shredded plastic packing material, plastic jewellery, toys and oyster shells. It’s not one of the best works here – its effect is too dark and dingy for me – but it’s very typical of his modus operandi.

Room 7 – Water and Light

In 1989 Bowling went back to his childhood home in Guyana, accompanied by one of his sons. He immediately noticed the quality of the light in South America.

‘When I looked at the landscape in Guyana, I understood the light in my pictures is a very different light. I saw a crystalline haze, maybe an East wind and water rising up into the sky. It occurred to me for the first time, in my fifties, that the light is about Guyana. It is a constant in my efforts’ (1992).

As you might expect, the trip resulted in works which try to capture the effect, using Bowling’s (by now) trademark effects of acrylic gel swept into ridges, themselves arranged in very loose box or square shapes.

Sacha Jason Guyana Dreams 1989 Tate © Frank Bowling. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2019

From the later 1960s Bowling had studios in London and New York. His London studio is in East London and here he has made a series of paintings titled Great Thames which do just that – reference the mighty river Thames, invoking the long line of landscape painters who Bowling is well aware of – Gainsborough, Turner and John Constable.

In the way they adapt his by now trademark use of gel to create boxes and ridges, scattered with metallic pigments, scored and indented with all manner of objects found around the studio and pressed into the surface – nonetheless, the Great Thames paintings on display here prompt comparisons with Monet – not so much in technique or even in aim, but in the shimmering evocativeness of the finished product.

Great Thames IV (1989-9) by Frank Bowling. Arts Council Collection, South Bank Centre © Frank Bowling. All rights reserved DACS 2019

Room 8 – Layering and stitching

In the 1990s, Bowling continued to work with acrylic paint and gel and continued to experiment with incorporating different materials and objects into his paintings. He experimented with stitching canvases together and attaching the main canvas to brightly-coloured strips of secondary canvas, to create a distinct border to the work.

 

He took this further by cutting up earlier canvases, and stapling sections together, juxtaposing different paint applications and colours. Like the many found objects embedded in the gloop, this stitching is very evident and all tends towards emphasising the materiality of the work of art. And, in some sense, its contingency. It is like this. But it needn’t have been like this. Meditate not only on the work. But on the arbitrariness and contingency which leads to the work.

Girls in the City (2017) by Frank Bowling © Frank Bowling

Girls in the City was made by stitching together seven individually stretched canvases. You can still see the vaguely square, ‘brick’-like shapes he creates using raised ridges of acrylic gel. But to that element of boxness, is added a more literal boxiness created by the piece’s assemblage from smaller parts. He is quotes as saying the works from this period were ‘organised in the way people structure themselves, in the way we are’ – presumably, assembled from lots of disparate elements.

Room 9 Explosive experimentation

This last room is devoted to works made over the past ten years. My first reaction was I didn’t like them so much. Nowadays confined to a sitting position, Bowling has used assistants to help him, and has continued his experimentation. He uses washes of thin paint, poured paint, blotched paint, stencilled applications, the use of acrylic gels, the insertion of found objects, and stitching together of different sections of canvas.

This results in what, for me, are rather a departure from the work of the previous three or so rooms. In a work like Iona Miriam’s Christmas Visit To and From Brighton the stitching is very much on display, in the sense that the canvas with the great pink crescent on it has been roughly chopped in half and stitched onto another canvas underneath, which appears to consist of a regular pattern of coloured stripes which provide a striking ‘interval’ between the top and bottom halves, and also, when you come to look at it, a frame around the ‘main’ canvas. And that’s before you get round to processing the complicated imagery, the vibrant colours and the scoring and striking into the surface, which characterise the ‘main’ image.

Iona Miriam’s Christmas Visit To and From Brighton (2017) by Frank Bowling. Courtesy Frank Bowling and Hales Gallery, Alexander Gray Associates and Marc Selwyn Fine Art © Frank Bowling. All rights reserved DACS 2018

I think that I was still too in thrall to the box or square gel ridge shapes of the earlier works, still processing the effect of them, to really appreciate these more recent works. Maybe you need to visit the exhibition several times to really absorb Bowling’s variety and inventiveness. These last works seem to be going somewhere completely new. I hope he lives long enough to show us where.

Summary

The works in the first part of the show are interesting and good, but often feel very much of their time like the Swinging Sixties cover girl and other works which feel like mash-ups of Hockney, Bacon, Kitaj with patches of Op Art thrown in.

The enormous map paintings – some of them over seven yards long – riffing off the abstract expressionists, are very powerful and absorbing in their own right.

The poured paintings reminded me a bit of school art projects. An interesting idea but the results weren’t that great.

It is only when Bowling starts working with acrylic gel and metallic tints, and embedding foam and then all kinds of objects into the surfaces of his paintings, that something weird and marvellous happens to his works.

Words cannot convey the rich and strange results of these experiments. The dense gloop, the metallic tints, and the strange clotted surfaces, alive with all sorts of half-buried objects, create enticing effects. I walked back and forth through the show half a dozen times or more and each time one particular painting stood out more and more strongly – spoke to me.

Philoctetes’ Bow (1987) by Frank Bowling. Courtesy the Artist and Hales Gallery © Frank Bowling

This reproduction in no way conveys the richness of the colour of this huge painting (it is 1.8 metres tall by 3.6 metres wide; it would cover most of the wall of an average sitting room).

And also doesn’t convey the way the long curve along the bottom which dominates it, actually sits proud of the surface. It is a characteristic slice of acrylic foam which also looks like a long, thin strip of corrugated cardboard. It not only creates the composition, but it projects it forward off the wall, and into your imagination. I kept being drawn back to look at it again and again, to sit in the bench placed in front of it precisely so the visitor can let it permeate every cell of your imagination.

Wow! What an amazing body of work.

Demographics

When I arrived at 10.30 the exhibition was almost empty. When I walked slowly through it at 12.30, there were 38 visitors, including me – 12 men and 26 women. There were no black or Asian people at all. The only people of colour were two of the Tate ‘visitor assistants’. There were half a dozen or so teenagers who seemed to be on a school trip, and one or two 20-somethings. The rest of us were white, middle-aged, grey-haired old types. Which reinforces the impression I’ve gained from reviewing some 150 art exhibitions: the gallery-going public in London is overwhelmingly white, middle-class, old or retired, and predominantly female.

Curators

Frank Bowling is curated by Elena Crippa, Curator, Modern and Contemporary British Art and Laura Castagnini, Assistant Curator.

The promotional video


Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

Quentin Blake: From the Studio @ the House of Illustration

Sir Quentin Blake is arguably the UK’s most famous book illustrator, as well as a fine artist, designer and writer in his own right. He was a leading spirit behind the establishment of the House of Illustration, the only gallery in the UK devoted entirely to the work of illustrators, which opened in 2014, and is housed in a restored Victorian building spitting distance from King’s Cross station.

The House has three galleries. In the main one (three rooms and a small video room) at the moment is a retrospective of work by cartoonist and graphic novelist Posy Simmonds. In the second gallery (one biggish room) is an exhibition of works by the Taiwanese artist YiMiao Shih. In between these two is a really small, L-shaped room. This is the permanent Quentin Blake gallery, tribute to the nation’s most popular illustrator and a pay-off we presume for leading the campaign to set up the gallery.

The Quentin Blake gallery hosts a changing display of works by the great man on different themes, for example last Valentine’s Day it featured a set of twenty or so very funny cartoons on the theme of love and cupid’s arrow.

The current exhibition is titled ‘From the studio’ which allows Blake to tell us a little about his working practices. He tells us that for the past forty years most of his works have been produced in a room overlooking a tree-lined London square. He stands with his back to the French windows and balcony, pen in hand. The room contains four ‘plan chests’ and two tables and a litter of drawings.

The exhibition allows him to share with us some works in progress, first drafts of illustrations which he is currently working on.

Sheffield Children’s Hospital

Sheffield Children’s Hospital opened a new wing opened last year, containing has four wards which, alongside beds also offers therapy and treatment rooms, a patient dining room, a parents’ relaxation room, a social room for teenagers, and a ‘play tower’ installation, for younger children.

Blake was commissioned to create artworks for the walls of corridors in three of the wing’s wards, and as larger-scale murals in communal areas. The designs were drawn on paper, then scanned, enlarged and printed in large scale onto washable wall coverings.

Mural by Quentin Blake at Sheffield Children’s Hospital

The King of the Golden River

In 1841 the critic John Ruskin published this children’s story as a parable about the impact of human actions on the environment. This year the book was republished by Thames and Hudson with illustrations by Blake. Blake tells us that he went about illustrating it ‘the old-fashioned way’, cutting up the text to stick it into position, then drawing in rough illustrations around it.

From The King of the Golden River © Quentin Blake

Moonlight travellers

Blake’s series of paintings of people travelling through bleak moonlit landscapes began as a personal project in 2017, as an experiment in pure imagination. Later this year they will be published alongside a ‘response’ by author Will Self. He is quoted as saying ‘made them up as I went along, almost like a performance’.

Moonlight Travellers © Quentin Blake

Mouse on a Tricycle

This wordless book opens with a tiny picture of a mouse on a tricycle. It imagines the public’s response to the fact of a cycling rodent. Some cheer it on, some are outraged, some are scared, some deliver hectoring sermons. I loved this picture. It says so much about human nature.

Mouse on a Tricycle © Quentin Blake

It is incredible how just a handful of drawings and paintings can fill your heart with happiness and delight!


Related links

Reviews of other House of Illustration exhibitions

Faith Ringgold @ the Serpentine Gallery

‘I can’t get through the world without recognizing that race and sex influence
everything I do in my life.’ Faith Ringgold

Cycle through London’s diesel-polluted streets to the Serpentine Galleries for the launch of the second of two exhibitions showcasing the art of American woman artists. This one is a ground-breaking survey of the work of African-American woman artist Faith Ringgold.

Jazz Stories: Mama Can Sing, Papa Can Blow #1: Somebody Stole My Broken Heart (2004) by Faith Ringgold © 2018 Faith Ringgold / Artists Rights Society (ARS) New York, Courtesy ACA Galleries, New York

Faith Ringgold’s biography

The press release includes a potted biography of the artist, thus:

Faith Ringgold was born in Harlem, New York in 1930 (so she is currently 88 years old).

Faith Ringgold is an artist, teacher, lecturer and author of numerous award-winning children’s books.

Faith Ringgold received her BS and MA degrees in visual art from City College of New York in 1955 and 1959.

A Professor Emeritus of Art at the University of California in San Diego, Ringgold has received 23 Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degrees.

Ringgold is the recipient of more than 80 awards and honours including the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship, The American Academy of Arts and Letters Award and recently the Medal of Honour for Fine Arts from the National Arts Club.

In 2017, Ringgold was elected a member into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Boston.

Ringgold’s work has been shown internationally, most recently:

  • in the group exhibition Soul of A Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, Tate Modern, London (2017)
  • We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965 – 85, Brooklyn Museum (2017)
  • Post-Picasso Contemporary Reactions, Museu Picasso, Barcelona, Spain (2014)
  • American People, Black Light: Faith Ringgold’s Paintings of the 1960’s, the Neuberger Museum, Purchase, New York (2011)

Ringgold’s work is in the permanent collections of numerous museums in the United States including:

  • The Metropolitan Museum of Art
  • Museum of Modern Art
  • Whitney Museum of American Art
  • Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
  • The Brooklyn Museum
  • The Studio Museum in Harlem
  • The National Museum of American Art, Washington, DC
  • The Art Institute of Chicago
  • The Boston Museum of Fine Art

Politics

Ringgold’s art is drenched in politics, specifically American race politics, from the Civil Rights Movement through Black Power to Black Lives Matter. And in feminism, the women’s movement, from women’s liberation through to the #Metoo movement. Almost all her works have a subject, and that subject is political in intention, either publicly and polemically political, or more subtly personal, implicit in the stories of her extended families and their experiences as black people in America.

The Flag is Bleeding #2 (American Collection #6) (1997) by Faith Ringgold. Private collection, courtesy Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, London © 2018 Faith Ringgold / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

As the press release puts it:

For more than five decades, Ringgold has consistently challenged perceptions of African American identity and gender inequality through the lenses of the feminist and the civil rights movements. As cultural assumptions and prejudices persist, her work retains its contemporary resonance.

Hence she has produced series of works with titles like ‘Slave Rape’ and the ‘Feminist series’, and ‘Black Light’, and works like ‘Woman Free Yourself’.

Protest and activism have remained integral to Ringgold’s practice since she co-founded the group the National Black Feminist Organization in 1973 along with her then 18 year-old daughter, Michele Wallace.

In her earliest works in the 1960s, the ‘American People’ series (1963-67), Ringgold took ‘the American dream’ as her subject to expose social inequalities.

By the 1970s, Ringgold, along with her daughter, was leading protests against the lack of diversity in the exhibitions programme at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art. Forty years later her work was included in an exhibition at the same museum, on the subject of protest.

Fifty years after her earliest work, she published in 2016 We Came to America, a children’s book that celebrates cultural diversity. From start to finish her art is concerned with the political implications of black life in America.

And as a white man viewing the exhibition, I have no doubt African Americans were horribly oppressed – through centuries of slavery, the inequities of the Reconstruction period, the Jim Crow laws, lynchings, segregation in the Deep South which lasted well into my own lifetime – and that Ringgold’s work is testimony to the enduring hurt and trauma of the suffering of the black experience in America right up to the present day.

But… well… I feel I have watched so many documentaries, been to so many exhibitions, watched so many movies and TV shows and read so many books about the suffering of African Americans that, horrible and true though it all is… well…The subject is certainly not new.

And also, although her treatment of it is sometimes harsh and explicit, more often it is oblique, with a lot of emphasis on Ringgold’s own personal experiences and the stories of her extended family.

And also the nature of the art itself – the use of soft and even luxurious fabrics – tends to soften and mediate the impact of a lot of what she’s saying.

The art

What I’m struggling to define is that I found the subject matter of many of the works less interesting than the form and the variety of experiments in form and presentation which Ringgold has made throughout her career as an artist rather than as a political activist.

Rather than shaking my head at the atrocities of slavery and institutional violence against African Americans, I more often found myself nodding my head at the inventiveness and exuberance and optimism of much of her art.

Roughly speaking, the works came in four shapes or styles:

  1. Paintings
  2. Posters
  3. Tankas
  4. Quilts

These four can be divided into a simpler binary division – before and after the tankas.

1. Paintings

Her earliest works appear to be fairly traditional paintings, mostly of people, contemporary Americans, done in a naive, kind of cartoon Modernism. The earliest works here come from the ‘American People’ series, which mostly depict white bourgeois figures with more than a hint of irony or satire.

As such, some of them sort of reminded me of Weimar satire from the 1930s. The reduction of this woman’s neck and boobs to circles and tubes, and the deliberately garish unnatural colouring reminded me of 1930s Picasso.

American People #9: The American Dream (1964) Faith Ringgold. Private collection, courtesy Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, London © 2018 Faith Ringgold / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

There are about ten or so of these early paintings and their feel for design and layout, and their type of super-simplified, Henri Rousseau-style, naive figuration is extremely beguiling.

American People #15: Hide Little Children (1966) by Faith Ringgold. Private collection, courtesy Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, London © 2018 Faith Ringgold / Artists Rights Society (ARS) New York

As the 60s progressed Ringgold created a series titled ‘Black Light’ which took the same kind of stylised human faces, but experimented with casting them in varying shades of black and brown. Literally investigating the changing effects of blackness and brownness in painted portraits.

2. Posters

By the later 1960s the social situation in America had become revolutionised, not least for African Americans, with the much more aggressive Black Power and Black Panther groups replacing the peaceful, early 60s, Christian activism of Martin Luther King’s civil rights movement. Also, the Women’s Liberation movement was inaugurated and spread like wildfire through a generation of frustrated, intelligent women, impatient at being pigeon-holed, stereotyped, objectified and held back in every area of civil life.

Ringgold responded to this explosion of activism by creating banners and posters with stark textual messages, such as ‘Woman Free yourself’, ‘Woman Freedom Now’, ‘United States of Attica’ (a response to the uprising at Attica Prison in New York State where 2,000 prisoners seized hostages and held out for four days till the state police took back control in a pitched battle in which 43 people were killed [10 staff, 33 prisoners]).

The posters use cut-out paper to create vibrant text against jangling colours, as well as offset prints and silkscreen techniques. Text, colour, patterns and shapes.

Woman Free Angela (1971) by Faith Ringgold

Next to the posters are hung a series of images from the same period (1970-72) depicting the American flag – ‘The People’s Flag Show’ as well as ‘United States of America’ – a map on which has been written every instance of anti-black police brutality. Politics, black anger.

There’s one titled ‘Judson 3’ which refers to the following event:

In 1970, there was a Flag Show that took place at the Judson Memorial Church on Washington Square Park, for which Faith designed the poster. The show, after massive participation on the part of artists in New York, was closed by the Attorney General’s office. Faith, Jon Hendricks and Jon Toche were arrested and charged with Desecration of the Flag. As a consequence, they were dubbed the Judson 3. They were subsequently vindicated of all charges on appeal by lawyers who were assisted by the American Civil Liberties Union. It was an important case for Freedom of Speech among artists.

So Ringgold herself was directly, personally, physically involved in the kinds of protests and events she celebrates.

The urgency of the commitment to political issues at the end of the 60s, which found expression in posters, placards, banners, mottos and logos, reminds me of the banners and posters being made at exactly the same time by the nun-turned-artist Corita Kent, who was recently the subject of an eye-opening exhibition at the House of Illustration at King’s Cross.

3. Tankas

So far so bold, brash and colourful. But her career takes a massive and decisive shoft with the discovery of fabrics. 

The story goes that Ringgold was on a visit to Europe and in a museum in Amsterdam looking at the venerable art of the Old Masters, when someone suggested she take a look at a nearby display of tankas.

tanka is a Tibetan hanging tapestry made of cotton or silk which contains or frames a painting of Buddhist deities, scenes, or a mandala. Tankas are generally portrait-shape and very, very big.

In a flash Ringgold realised this represented a liberation from the western white male tradition of the Oil Painting.

Here was something which broke with traditions of painting, of a discrete privileged image contained in and defined by a heavy gold frame and hung on a wall to be admired by millionaire owners.

Here was a way of presenting images within a much more populist, accessible, craft setting – and in a way which created a much more complicated interplay of fabrics and textures and mixed surfaces.

Almost immediately after the trip, in 1972-3, Ringgold made a series titled ‘Feminist series’ which explores this new medium. The oriental origin of the form appears to be reflected in:

  • the tall narrow format
  • the impressionistic treatment of trees and forests
  • and the use of text (as in the posters) but written vertically, in the Chinese style, completely against the western tradition

In the example below, note the way a) the main image is painted in acrylic but b) embedded in a fairly complex surround of fabrics c) the way it is designed to be hung and so has a loop of fabric at the top allowing a metal bar like a curtain rail to go through it and d) there are braided tassels hanging from each end of the curtain loop. (N.B. There is some text in the blue sky at the top of the painting, descending vertically as I mentioned, and conveying a feminist message – but too small to be legible in this reproduction.)

Feminist Series: We Meet the Monster #12 of 20 by Faith Ringgold (1972) Acrylic on canvas framed in cloth

A door had opened. From this point onwards, all of Ringgold’s work right up to the present day involves greater or lesser amounts of fabric.

A few years later (in 1974) she produced a series titled ‘Windows of the Wedding’, experiments with using the fabric surround of the tanka to frame purely abstract geometric shapes. In just a decade she’s come from the semi-Weimar satire on white people in America through to these multi-textured, abstract and fabric experiments. A hell of an odyssey.

Installation view of Faith Ringgold at Serpentine Galleries © 2019 Faith Ringgold. Photo by the author

Installation view of Faith Ringgold at Serpentine Galleries © 2019 Faith Ringgold. Photo by the author

The five examples of the series in the exhibition take up one wall and create a restful, if complicatedly decorative effect. But they appear to be quite unique in her oeuvre in being the only works on display here which do not depict the human face or figure. It was nice to sit and watch them for a while. Ringgold is known – perhaps over-known – for her black consciousness and feminist messages but I’m glad the curators showed that there is also this other, purely decorative side to her output.

In the final room we jump forward nearly 40 years to 2010, when she produced another series of tankas, each of these ones centring an iconic black figure, painted in a faux-naive style in the centre and surrounded with relevant text from a sermon or speech or text by the figure (too small to see in this photo).

Each portrait is embedded in a decorative arrangement of flowers, or just zoomorphic shapes, and this square it itself embedded in a luxurious velvet fabric which really makes you want to reach out and stroke them. As you can see each tanka is suspended from a green wooden rod at each end of which hangs a couple of golden tassels. Made me think of Muslim prayer mats or rugs… Certainly a tradition very different from Rembrandt in a gold frame.

From left to right, they are:

  • Coming To Jones Road Part 2: Martin Luther King Jnr Tanka #3 I Have A Dream (2010)
  • Coming To Jones Road Part 2: Sojourner Truth Tanka #2 Ain’t I A Woman (2010)
  • Coming To Jones Road Part 2: Harriet Tubman Tanka #1 Escape To Freedom (2010),

Installation view of Faith Ringgold at Serpentine Galleries © 2019 Faith Ringgold. Photo by the author

4. Quilts

And then there are the quilts. Melissa Blanchflower, the show’s curator, explained that Ringgold’s great, great grandmother Susie Shannon, who was born into slavery, was made to sew quilts for plantation owners. On the slave plantations slave women were often set to sew and create quilts for the master’s family. It was collaborative work, many women working on the same quilt. The quilts might bear all kinds of images, from Christian imagery, through to fairy tales or folk stories, as well as improving mottos. The women might also sew in coded messages.

The skill was passed down the female line of the family to Ringgold’s mother, who was a fashion designer, so that Faith grew up with the sight and smell and touch and shape of all kinds of fabrics, and a feel for what goes with what, what compliments, and what jars and offsets – for the world of effects which can be created by pre-designed fabrics.

The difference between the tankas and the quilts is that the former are designed to be hung while the latter end up being hung but can also be laid flat. The real innovation is in the use of the apparently passive ‘feminine’ format of the quilt for all kinds of vivid, angry and emotive social messages.

Take the emotive series titled ‘Slave Rape’. In this photo you can see:

  • Slave Rape #1 of 3: Fear Will Make You Weak (1973)
  • Slave Rape #2 of 3: Run You Might Get Away (1973)
  • Slave Rape #3 of 3: Fight To Save Your Life (1973)

Installation view of Faith Ringgold at Serpentine Galleries © 2019 Faith Ringgold. Photo: readsreads.info

If you described the subject and the figure’s facial attitudes and postures in words, your auditor might expect them to be dark and harrowing but, as you can see, they are brightly coloured, and the figures done in Ringgold’s characteristic faux-naive style are almost (I hate to say it) pretty.

Only the titles bespeak the atrocities they commemorate. And, after I’d looked at the human figures, and enjoyed their interplay with the jungle foliage around them, my eye tended to forget the ostensible subject matter and wandered off to enjoy the fabrics – the use of variegated fabrics in the surrounds, materials which could easily be offcuts of curtains or sofa coverings, but which, sewn together in subtle asymmetries, provide a pleasing counterpoint to the central narrative figures.

In later quilts Ringgold revived the use of texts from her poster days to weave together her personal stories and writings with the history of African Americans. ‘Who’s afraid of Aunt Jemima?’ from 1983 was her first ‘story quilt’, made up of alternating squares containing schoolgirl-style depictions of members of her family, and numbered squares of text, which tell the story of her early life.

Installation view of ‘Who’s afraid of Aunt Jemima?’ by Faith Ringgold at the Serpentine Galleries © 2019 Faith Ringgold. Photo: readsreads.info

There are half a dozen or so of these story quilts from the later 1980s and they combine a complex interplay of hand-written text with painted imagery, embedded in patchworks of fabric, to create a profound impact – a sophisticated, politically alert reworking of a time-honoured, and family tradition.

Works from the 1990s, such as the ‘American Collection’ series (with titles such as ‘We Came To America’ and ‘The Flag is Bleeding’ [the second image in this review, above] combine all the techniques she has mastered, to create images of greater violence and intensity. After the hope of the 1960s, life for many urban American blacks seems to have become steadily bleaker, more drug addicted and violent, and the experience of immigrants to America more fraught and dangerous.

And yet the same period saw the far more relaxed, vibrant and optimistic series ‘Jazz Stories: Mama Can Sing, Papa Can Blow’ (first image in this review).

Ringgold has reflected her times, and the rise and cultural spread of the two great social movements of black power and feminism over the past fifty years, but there is also – within her voice or brand or oeuvre – a surprising variety of tone and style.

Arriving back at the ‘American People’ series from the 1960s you are staggered at the journey she has been on, and by all the things she has seen and felt and expressed with such confidence and imagination. She did it her way. She did it with style. Inspiring.

Interview with Faith Ringgold

A conversation between Faith Ringgold and Serpentine Artistic Director Hans Ulrich Obrist.

In fact, being a grand old lady of American art means there are scads of videos about Faith Ringgold and many illuminating interviews with her.


Related links

  • Faith Ringgold continues at the Serpentine Gallery until 20 October 2019

Books by Faith Ringgold

Shes quite a prolific author, too.

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Serpentine

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