Helene Schjerfbeck: Royal Academy
I am hugely grateful to my friend Philippa Abrahams for insisting I see the Helene Schjerfbeck exhibition at the Royal Academy. If I had followed the guidance of Jonathan Jones in the Guardian, I would never have bothered. “Schjerfbeck’s uninspired miserabilism is a cold shower of second-rate art”, he wrote. How absolutely wrong he was.
From the very first painting I had an idea of why Philippa, an artist, conservationist and celebrity connoisseur of painting techniques, would be entranced. It was the treatment of hair, also remarked upon by my brother . Both agreed that the room of self portraits was outstanding. But for my sister and I, who uncannily always agree on the painting we’d like to take home, it was the treatment of light and stone that moved us to select The Door.
This painting was described by Laura Cummings in the Observer as “devoid of human figures and full of mystery…sunlight creeps between the edges of a gothic entrance to a church interior”. She said it showed a feeling for the potential of the impressionism that Schjerfbeck encountered in France “to explore the quiet, introspective recesses of experience”.
For Philippa the exhibition brought home “the difference between painting and photography, at that time developing and becoming its own art form, challenging painters to question what they were doing with regard to portraying what they see”.
“Painters make something that wasn’t there before and a photograph takes something and records a moment so the lens is a barrier to the feeling and understanding of what you are looking at,” she explained. “It seemed to me that Helene reacted and was compelled to make images and stories in paint, recording life – hers and others. She creates an atmosphere, I wanted to know more about the scenes and portraits. The room of self portraits is on a par with Rembrandt but less grand and therefore not taken seriously. I get the feeling she knew her own worth and what she was doing.”
Until October 27 in the Gabrielle Jungels-Winkler Galleries at the RA.
Why does an artist feel such a need to create that every other activity is of lesser significance? And why is the job never done? Self-discovery is the answer, according to composer Aaron Copland, who is quoted in the celebrity psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Anthony Storr’s landmark study of the motivation of artists, The Dynamics of Creation: ‘I must create in order to know myself, and since self-knowledge is a never-ending search, each new work is only a part-answer to the question “Who am I?” and brings with it the need to go on to other and different part-answers.’
These words and ideas came to mind when looking at the series of heads in the Works on Paper section of Frances Aviva Blane’s latest book, FAB. It’s 15 years since I first encountered her work and there is both constancy and progression in her part-answers. These are the heads, which can easily be taken for hers although she has claimed they are experiences rather than depictions, and the indisputably non-figurative canvases which she has described as “investigations of paint and its capacity to disintegrate”.
Both elicit fervent admiration and fine writers have contributed catalogue introductions. These include Diana Souhami for Broken Heads Broken Paint at the 12 Star Gallery last year. She perceptively described the heads as “inner turbulence” and Blane herself as “entirely serious and mischievously funny, both self-deprecating and self-assured”. The disparities of character are suggested by the enigmatic Yellow Head (above), one of the dozen Heads in FAB., which would be my choice of a work to take home.
The text is by a contemporary celebrity psychoanalyst and psychotherapist – Susie Orbach. She draws attention to parallels between the paintings and emotions engendered in psychoanalytic sessions: “feelings, thoughts and screams that startle with rawness.” She describes the Heads as “mangled with pain” and “lost in incomprehension, screaming with private anguish, disillusionment”. Yet Orbach also picks up on elements of the paintings that “pulsate with an opening, dare we say, to hope?” – the vibrancy amidst the pain akin to Blane’s laugh and trademark red lipstick.
Pink and black make a potent combination in many of Blane’s paintings, including Black on Pink (above) in FAB. It brings to mind one of the first pieces of writing I saw on her work, Morgan Falconer’s essay for Delinquent Paintings at ecArtspace in 2001: “Blane manipulates the colour to its logical extreme. The pink is of a pitch reminiscent of bubble gum, ice cream and cherry blossom. This sickly sweet nostalgia is counteracted by rough handling and violent gesture. The black is cold and shiny. It speaks of nightmare void. This combination of lush sensuality and deep torpor introduces an air of dis-ease.”
By coincidence, a painting included in that exhibition is now owned by Susie Orbach who ends her essay in FAB. by describing its effect: “It pulls me in daily. The thickness of the pink and black paint, so dense I wonder if it will ever really dry, tells me of beauty and sorrow, of the struggle for life.” She describes herself as lucky to own it, a feeling voiced by many collectors I’ve met. Likewise regret by those who can’t and will have to make do with my solution….. fantasising about which work to take home. Or in this case, works – I’ll have Black on Pink too please!
FAB., Starmount Publishing, £40 is available from Joe Corr: email@example.com and from Amazon later this month. For more information on Frances Aviva Blane and more images, see my review of Broken Heads, Broken Paint – No 11 in the Archive.
Patrick Jones: Budleigh Salterton Literary Festival
As part of the Budleigh Salterton Literary Festival, abstract artist Patrick Jones is holding an open studio and book launches at his home – The Bank Flat, 8 Fore Street. He will be present from noon until 2.30pm daily from September 18th to 22nd to talk to visitors about his work, including Colour Field Painting (above), and his recently published monograph. There are also two launches at the flat for a book by local author, psychotherapist and executive coach Julia Vaughan Smith: Trauma and Coaching, which has a section from one of Jones’s paintings on the cover. The events will be from noon until 1pm on the 20th and from noon until 2.30pm on the 22nd.
It’s an opportunity to see Jones’s new paintings and also some of those long on display, including the one I’d like to take home, Spirit (for JH), above. This is a tribute to a fellow abstract painter, the British artist John Hoyland RA, who died in 2011 aged 76. The ethereal browns, greys and golds suggest Hoyland’s frailty when close to death and the bright gestural core of the image expresses his intense and positive spirit.
Hoyland was over a decade older than Jones and already having major solo exhibitions in London when Jones was a student at Exeter School of Art and Birmingham College of Art in the 1960s. There is an affinity between them in their work and approaches, except that Hoyland disliked the term abstraction – “it smacks of geometry to me, of rational thought” – and the label “abstract painter” whereas Jones is comfortable with both.
Spirit is atypical of the paintings for which Jones is best known, where colours are predominantly vibrant, applied in a lively improvised manner for joyful impact, as in the 2017 acrylic painting Vision (above). At the time he made this he was using thin glaze and deliberate brush action to impart delicacy and intensity as in the series, Sidmouth. Figurative elements, such as a discernible horizon, made for accessible and often atmospheric works. Yet their abstract forms and mark-making hark back to his time in America, where he lived and worked for eight years in the 1970s.
His website http://www.patrickjonesabstractartist.co.uk includes an excellent introduction to the work of this artist’s exhilarating practice, his impressive exhibiting record and images of diverse phases of his paintings. Look out for the link on the Patrick page to Painter’s Table, an illuminating “conversation” with Jones at 64, featuring descriptions of how his painting evolved when in America. There he participated in the legendary Triangle Workshops and worked with the Abstract Expressionist Helen Frankenthaler.
The home exhibition can be viewed by arrangement: firstname.lastname@example.org __________________
The Miserable Lives of Fabulous Artists
by Chris Orr
I used to subtitle films about artists for exhibitions, including one for Tate St Ives about Barbara Hepworth made in the 1960s. In my favourite scene she wanders in her studio garden at night, wearing a black and white diamond-checked fur coat and peering through the holes in her sculptures. This part of the film was discoloured and everything had a neon tinge.
So it’s easy to see why An Unfortunate Incident in Barbara Hepworth’s Studio (above) by the celebrated artist/printmaker Chris Orr MBE RA had immediate appeal for me when I saw it screened during his entertaining illustrated presentation at Ilminster Literary Festival about his book The Miserable Lives of Fabulous Artists. This volume, published by the RA, has all 30 works in his eponymous series with sketches and text.
Another engaging image that Orr used depicted LS Lowry in a version of his typical northern cityscape as an abject raincoat-clad figure heading for a street corner and about to collide with an exuberantly plump Beryl Cook. Others pair married artists: Diego Rivera makes a fry-up for his wife Frida Kahlo and Lee Krasner searches for a button lost by Jackson Pollock during a vigorous floor-based action painting session.
Orr has succinctly explained his intentions: “Artists have a lonely job and success is often elusive. Life in the studio is not all that it is cracked up to be, but it is there that dross can be turned into gold. Each of my ‘miseries’ are subjected to the cliche and reputations that haunt them.”
The Ilminster audience was not entirely sympathetic to the hardships endured in the name of art. The first question was: “Do you think Jason Pollock was really an artist?”
£16.95 Outlets include the RA shop at Burlington House, Piccadilly and online.
THE SHIPPON NEWS ARCHIVE
- Vuillard: The Poetry of the Everyday at the Holburne Museum, Bath
- Lee Krasner at the Barbican Art Gallery, London
- The World as Yet Unseen at Falmouth Art Gallery
- On Paper at the Thelma Hulbert Gallery, Honiton
- Albert Irvin and Abstract Expressionism at Royal West Of England Academy, Bristol
- Modern Couples at the Barbican Art Gallery, London
- 50 Years, 50 Artists at Annely Juda, London
- Virginia Woolf: An exhibition Inspired by her Writings at Tate St Ives, Pallant House Chichester and most recently the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge
- Trail@14 at the Devon Guild of Craftsmen’s Riverside Gallery, Bovey Tracey
- The Royal West of England Academy’s 166th Annual Open, Bristol
- Looking For Jeffery Edwards, Brook Gallery, Budleigh Salterton
- Frances Aviva Blane Broken Heads Broken Paint, 12 Star Gallery, London
- Howard Hodgkin Last Paintings at Gagosian, Mayfair
- Sculpture @ The Walled Garden in Moreton, Dorset
- Jane Hedges, Chris Dunseath and Jacy Wall in Dorset Art Weeks 2018
- Kate Westbrook’s Diana and Actaeon at The Malthouse Gallery in Lyme Regis
- David Haughton in St Just at Penlee House in Penance
VUILLARD: THE POETRY OF THE EVERYDAY AT THE HOLBURNE MUSEUM, BATH
For me there are two wonderful things about this exhibition. The first is the selection of paintings. I have long loved Vuillard’s small works, especially the “intimiste” works dating from the 1890s when he asserted his predilection for minor chords and uncontrasting values. He spent almost his whole life living at home in the vicinity of Square Vintimille in Montmartre and many of these paintings depict the quiet life he lived there. But the more modest the setting, the more moving his interpretation.
The second is the clear wall text. For instance, the explanations of how the subtle psycho-dramas portrayed almost disappear into decorative patterns. Of my choice to take home, an oil painting dating from 1895, Two Women in a Public Park, the text draws attention to the influence of Gauguin’s deployment of interlocking blocks of colour to create flatness: the green grass sits apparently level with the patterned fabrics of the dresses. A further influence cited is the impact of photographs seen in the informality of the left-handed figures pose with her arm outstretched and the framing of the composition.
The later part of the exhibition includes portraits of the love of Vuillard’s life, Madame Lucy Hessel, a domineering character nicknamed the Dragon. The above depiction of her some five years after they met in 1900 reveals that he was well aware of her foibles. Though much of his work celebrates innocent pleasures, there is a dark aspect to his imagery. Explaining why she prefers Vuillard to Bonnard, co-founders of the Nabis, Paula Rego reportedly described him as “spookier”. It’s right on the nose.
Until September 15, daily 10am to 5pm. The entry fee (£12.50 for a standard adult ticket) also covers access to special displays including selections from the collection of over 4,000 fine and decorative art works and objects bequeathed to Bath in 1882.
LEE KRASNER: BARBICAN ART GALLERY
Lee Krasner painting Portrait in Green in her studio in Springs 1969. Photograph by Mark Patiky.
Lee Krasner first made abstract works after enrolling in 1937 at a school in New York run by German modernist Hans Hofmann. He was famed for his abrupt methods of criticism, including tearing a student’s drawing in half to demonstrate a more dynamic arrangement. But he responded positively to Krasner’s early abstract drawings, some of which are included in this enlightening and enjoyable exhibition. Her work was so good, he said, that “you would not know it was done by a woman”.
Krasner went on to become a pioneer of Abstract Expressionism and had a successful career though she never became a household name like her husband Jackson Pollock. It was only in 1973, when Marcia Tucker curated an exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, that Krasner had a major presentation of her work in a public institution in her native New York. The Barbican exhibition is the first in Europe since 1965.
But with characteristic optimism she regarded the lack of critical attention as a “blessing” because it meant she did not have to repeat herself to please collectors and dealers. Instead, she has said, she could flow with each direction as it came to her and this exhibition gives real insight into how she was able to constantly move on creatively.
It begins with the work I’d choose to take home. I found the painting Untitled 1946 (below) so intriguing that I inadvertently crossed the line on the gallery floor delineating a viewer’s minimal distance. It is one of the works known as Little Images – jewel-like paintings often with tiny repeated patterns which she began making soon after moving with Pollock to a clapboard farmhouse overlooking the salt marshes of Long Island.
Initially she worked indoors in makeshift studio spaces – simulated in the Barbican’s upstairs rooms – while Pollock painted, famously on the floor, in the barn outside. But a year after he was killed in a car crash in 1956 Krasner moved into his space, first making the melancholy, dramatic series of paintings that became known as Night Journeys.
Exuberant colour returned in the 1960s, with the Primary Series, aptly described in the wall text as “bold forms somersaulting across the canvas in dissonant hues”. The speed with which she worked is revealed by photographs where she appears as a blur. An indication of the success of this well presented exhibition and of Lee Krasner’s artistic achievement is that on completing one viewing tour I at once went around again.
Lee Krasner: Living Colour runs until September 1. £15 plus concessions. http://www.barbican.org.uk/artgallery
Lee Krasner Untitled, 1946. Collection of Bobbi and Walter Zifkin. © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation. Photograph by Jonathan Urban
The World As Yet Unseen: Women Artists in Conversation with Partou Zia
Falmouth Art Gallery
Art as alchemy was at the heart of the late Partou Zia’s conception of what art is suggests Dr Penny Florence in her catalogue essay Poetic Alchemy; Poetic Reality: “It is a joyous act of the imagination that garners all experience and time into a vibrant present. It affords a glimpse of the world as you’ve never seen it before; a glimpse that changes that world.”
Certainly the protagonist of Partou’s exuberant painting Typewriter is an instrument with more vitality than any I’ve seen in real life. Typewriters are machines imbued with the romance of literary creation and this one looks to be fizzing with anticipation.
I trace the impetus to select this work as the one I’d like to take home to seeing it shortly after admiring a splendid chrome-embossed typewriter in a second-hand shop near the gallery entrance. This antique artefact brought to mind a world long unvisited rather than one unseen – the newsrooms of my youth. I recalled the cacophony of typewriters at full tilt, the erratic flourishes of speed when inspiration struck and the emphatic carriage returns when the story was honed – a far cry from computer keyboard use.
Typewriter shares with other paintings of interiors by Partou a sense of bringing the outside world indoors, here through the luminous netted window and the back wall resembling a cloudscape. But it is her compositions of figures, often self-portraits, set in Cornwall’s landscape that predominate in this selection of work. Her subtle appreciation of the county’s coast and moors is a delight in these paintings and evident in descriptions quoted in her essay by Penny, the co-curator of the exhibition: “At a distance almost reachable with one eye shut sits the Wolf lighthouse, and a hazy silhouette of intrigue on the very nib of this grey horizon salutes the outer plots of the Scillies.”
Born in Tehran in 1958, Partou referred to her origins as Persian not Iranian. She came to England in 1970 and settled in 1993 in Newlyn with her husband the painter Richard Cook. Diagnosed with cancer in 2005 she died three years later. This ambitious exhibition juxtaposes, though not by simple contiguity, her paintings with works by sixteen artists many of whom knew Partou and all but one with Cornish connections. The hang is meant to allow for visual, poetic and emotional dialogues between works to speak for themselves, according to co-curator Clare Cooper of Partou’s London gallery Art First.
The World As Yet Unseen serves as a triple commemoration. It’s also for Rose Hilton who died on March 19, exactly 11 years after Partou, and is represented by the aptly named mysterious oil painting Into the Night, and for Gillian Ayres who died in April last year. She established her reputation in the late 1950s with abstracts ranging from large to gigantic – she has described them as “bloody great things” – and was the sole woman artist in the notoriously unsuccessful 1960 exhibition Situation. All works there had to be abstract and over 30 feet square but the dynamic, thickly encrusted oil painting Cinnabar included here is almost double that size and viewing is a powerful experience.
However, it’s clearly not a candidate for a work to take home – the query put to my viewing companions at the end of our visit. Liz Le Grice, Cultural Advisor at Trereife House, selected Nina Royle’s ink drawing Head with Cows: “It feels like a moment snatched in time from the natural world. The simple lines give an energy and expression to that moment.”
The drawing is from a collaborative project involving five women artists walking in Penwith then contributing to an 8 metre-long secco-fresco. Nina said they were attracted by the rich symbolism connected with cows and also their relationship to earth.
Surprisingly, given the wealth of choice, my friend Selina Craze and gallery director Henrietta Boex selected the same work (below) by Bridget Riley, who is rarely associated with figurative art. The crayon and pastel drawing Woman at a Tea-Table is thought to be from the mid 1950s. Both cited the pleasing way the curve of the human arm mirrored the chair’s. Henrietta, who has the good fortune to see these fine works almost daily, had an answer tailored to my question: “I can imagine living with it.”
Woman at a Tea-Table by Bridget Riley. Courtesy of The Ingram Collection of Modern British Art. © Bridget Riley 2019. All rights reserved.
On Paper at the Thelma Hulbert Gallery in Honiton
Margaret Mellis: Dying Daffodils 1989, oil pastel on paper @ the Estate of Margaret Mellis Courtesy Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London
It was by coincidence rather than design that the three works I chose to write about after visiting On Paper have banal subjects: half-dead flowers, a torn cinema ticket and flies. Likewise that although the press release finds reasons to cite a generous 25 of the 40 or so artists exhibited, none of my choices made the list.
But research revealed I am not alone in my high estimation of the modernist artist Margaret Mellis whose perceptively observed drawing Dying Daffodils is the work I’d most like to take home. Damien Hirst, the first artist named in the gallery’s selection, believes she deserves to be “up there – large on the map with her contemporaries”. Appropriately his Relationships, a ping-pong ball in a glass of water with a certificate, is shown in the same room.
Hirst sought out Mellis in 1986 when he was a would-be art student and she was in her seventies, living in a ramshackle house in coastal Suffolk subsidising her art with a smallholding. She is perhaps best known for the driftwood reliefs made there but a year after they met, Mellis began drawing half-dead flowers on the inside of envelopes.
According to her Telegraph obituarist Peter Davies, in doing so she was emulating the Cornish primitive painter Alfred Wallis in using found materials and makeshift supports. Mellis came to know Wallis’s work well in the late 1930s when she moved to Carbis Bay outside St Ives with her first husband, the art historian Adrian Stokes.
As well as being an admirer of her reliefs, Mellis’s personal story has long appealed to me for its happy ending. When her marriage to Stokes failed and he formed a relationship with her sister Ann she fell into deep despair. It was alleviated by meeting the painter Francis Davison, also romantically bereft. They married and were rarely parted for the rest of their lives.
Derek Boshier: National Film Theatre 2000, graphite on paper @ the artist Courtesy Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London
Romance from the mundane is the lure of Derek Boshier’s drawing National Film Theatre, with its lively, intensely worked background – runner-up for a work to take home. Boshier is associated with the Pop Art movement of Swinging London but he has a West Country connection – he studied at Yeovil School of Art from 1953 to 1957.
On Paper is a rewarding and entertaining exhibition drawn from the Arts Council and British Council Collections. It includes collage, drawings, burnt cardboard, graph paper, newsprint and 3-D objects by 20th century and contemporary artists. Well worth seeking out are works by Linder, Kenneth Martin, Eduardo Paolozzi and Roland Penrose.
My third choice is an international star: the Russian conceptual artist Ilya Kabakov. He is represented here by Two Friends (for Parkett 34) which features flies, a constant theme though he doesn’t know why. Made in 1992, it’s a timely choice for an exhibition in 2019 as this is the Year of the Fly for dipterologists. Coincidence rather than design, I suspect.
This enigmatic work is tiny whereas Kabakov is famed for large-scale installations such as Labyrinth (My Mother’s Album), a recreation of a maze-like Moscow apartment. A modest piece but still – a Kabakov in Honiton!
Albert Irvin and Abstract Expressionism at Royal West of England Academy
Untitled 3 by Albert Irvin Mid-1970s Courtesy of the Albert Irvin Estate
As I write this piece we are two days away from the 60th anniversary of the opening of a Tate exhibition credited by the RWA with changing the visual vocabulary of C20th British art – New American Painting. The works in our own current show, Abstract Reflection, can be seen as descendants of that seminal exhibition, although both of our artists were schoolboys living in the provinces. But Albert Irvin, then in his mid 30s, did go – and he later described the experience as “like a bomb going off”. It radically changed the nature of his painting practice from figurative art of the “kitchen sink” school to abstract expressionism.
The RWA exhibition demonstrates what this transformation involved for Irvin by dividing the works into four spaces. One has his early figurative paintings, often of domestic subjects, alongside like-minded contemporaries such as John Bratby and Edward Middleditch. Another room has artworks by participants in New American Painting although only two of the paintings included were in the 1959 exhibition. The black and white Jackson Pollock has an explosive presence. And the main gallery is mostly devoted to the paintings by which Irvin is best known – vibrant abstract canvases on an imposing scale.
Irvin’s dramatic architectural composition Untitled 3 (above) is just over two by three metres – dimensions he frequently used – and exemplifies his technique of layering acrylics with thin stains of paint on raw canvas. Were it not so huge, it would be the work I’d take home not least because it achieves with panache the immediacy he sought. In Studio Visit, a film based on an interview in 2012, this is how Irvin described his approach to making a painting: “I think about it a lot, I work on it a lot, but I’m trying to make it look as though I didn’t think about it at all and it took five minutes.”
But it is in the fourth room, with paintings and prints by abstract artists mostly associated with the West Country, that I came upon the work I’d like to take home – by Sandra Porter. She made Untitled – After Rothko + Reinhardt 1981 (below) as an MA student at Chelsea School of Art, when she was drawn to the meditative and minimal abstract paintings being made in postwar America, rather than the gestural works.
When I asked her to describe her intentions she did so succinctly: “I was interested in dividing up the picture plane in an apparently balanced way whilst disrupting the format with rectangles and edges in shifts up or down. In the way that rectangles in a Rothko seem to move up and down and in a Reinhardt in and out.” The key features for me were the intense texture of the black paint and fizzing energy of the broken red lines, both only to be discerned at close quarters to the canvas, hence the urge to take it home.
Untitled – After Rothko + Reinhardt 1981 by Sandra Porter Courtesy of the artist
In this room I had a further encounter with the works of an artist unfamiliar to me but to be sought out from now on – the painter and printmaker John Eaves who studied in the 1950s at Bath Academy of Art at Corsham Court. The Fine Art course was renowned for its focus on abstraction with tutors Peter Lanyon and William Scott, both well represented here.
However, the last words should be on Irvin, who has won reverence and affection in the art world through his dedication to abstraction and his vitality in art and life; a Telegraph obituary recorded that he was observed aged nearly 90 running 50 yards full pelt for a bus. He also had a subtle wit: in the interview for the film Studio Visit he says of his supportive wife Betty: “She gave me her youth, I gave her my old age.”
Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-garde at the Barbican
Installation view featuring Romaine Brooks, Portrait of Luisa Casati 1920 © John Phillips / Getty Images
An extraordinary thing happened when I visited Modern Couples with my sister, architect Clare San Martin. As readers of this page will know, from every exhibition I select one work that I would like to take home, even if I can’t. Modern Couples is a vast exhibition with hundreds of artworks. Some are famous, others rarely seen. Yet when I compared notes with my sister, we found we had chosen the same work although we had never discussed the artist. Why did Romaine Brooks’s At the Seaside – Self-portrait 1914 appeal to us both? My guess was that there is something of our mother about it though my sister disagreed.
There is certainly nothing of our modest mother about the subject of the only image of a Brooks painting offered to the press – the dramatic nude portrait above of the Italian heiress Luisa Casati. Her life, as an extravagant exhibitionist who inhabited, in the early 20th century, the Palazzo Venier on the Grand Canal in Venice, now home to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, is the subject of the most gripping episode of Judith Mackrell’s book The Unfinished Palazzo. Casati’s lovers included Augustus John, whose haunting portrait of her makes a marvellous frontispiece for the book, and the Italian writer and poet Gabriele d’Annunzio, who was also painted by Brooks.
For over 50 years this singular American painter was in a three-way partnership with the American writer Natalie Clifford Barney and French aristocrat Lily de Gramont. The part of the exhibition devoted to their circle, centred on the Parisian salon known as Temple de l’Amitie, demonstrates Lara Feigel’s perceptive description in the Guardian of the exhibition which she says shows “the freewheeling experimentation of interwar art to be inseparable from even more extravagant experiments in sexuality and coupledom”.
Modern Couples richly rewards several hours of viewing as there is comprehensive text for each of the 40 couples and the nature of their intimate relationships, whether obsessional, platonic, fleeting or lifelong, is well illustrated with photographs, love letters and ephemera as well as their own works.
Of particular note are Russian artists working at the time of and shortly after the revolution, including married Constructivist artists Alexander Rodchenko and Varvara Stepanova (below). But Modern Couples requires extreme stamina, so it was understandable that the exhibit that my other companion, weaver Jenny Lewenstein, most wanted to take home was the Finnish designer Alvar Aalto’s 1936 stylish flexible cantilevered chaise longue.
Below: A. Rodchenko and V. Stepanova descending from the airplane (for the film The General Line by Sergei Eisenstein), 1926. Courtesy Rodchenko and Stepanova Archives, Moscow. Photographer unknown.
50 YEARS, 50 ARTISTS ANNELY JUDA FINE ART
Annely Juda Fine Art made its name with ambitious exhibitions of works of Russian Constructivism, Bauhaus and De Stijl but has also brought Japanese artists of distinction to the rapt attention of London viewers. I was not a beneficiary of this policy until encountering two intriguing works in the gallery’s celebration marking its half century.
Words Like a Tower (above) is by Katsura Funakoshi, who has used camphor wood (laurel) for carved torsos since 1977, when he discovered that by sanding and polishing it then applying whiting he achieved a surface that resembles Japanese skin. He modified an ancient technique of using crystal eyeballs, replacing these with painted and varnished marble spheres. Figures are mounted on steel rods to bring them to eye-level. They are rarely likenesses but have the presence of real people. Spirituality may be increased by surrealist additions of animal features or transplanted body parts, as here.
Tadashi Kawamata uses construction and deconstruction to transform our environment, whether reshaping houses or regenerating towns. The first of his sculptural installations to be seen in a public open space in Britain was on the Serpentine Gallery lawn in 1997, following the building’s reconstruction, when he used elements of the original structure and leftover materials. He is represented here by a work from the same year – Plan for Annely Juda Gallery No 2, a striking relief with a chaotic sweep of miniature windows.
But if I could take one work home, it would not be either of these extraordinary pieces but the acrylic collage Double Space 2012 (above) by the late Sheila Girling. I covet it both as a reminder of her fine personal qualities and because I enjoy the juxtaposition of rich, sombre and sharp colours.
Girling’s expertise as a colourist is commemorated in a much repeated anecdote about a seminal painted steel sculpture by her husband, Sir Anthony Caro, Early One Morning. Having made it in the garage of their Hampstead home in 1962, he painted it green and put it on the lawn. Looking out from the house next morning, Sheila said “That’s definitely a red sculpture.” She was “spot on”, he later said. London 1966, the steel floor-based work representing Caro in 50 Years, 50 Artists, is an equally brilliant red.
For the online catalogue visit http://www.annelyjudafineart.co.uk.
VIRGINIA WOOLF: AN EXHIBITION INSPIRED BY HER WRITINGS
This enthralling exhibition eschews the obvious format of pairing extracts of Virginia Woolf’s novels, essays and memoirs with apposite images. Instead it aims to make her writing act as a prism through which to explore feminist perspectives on landscape, domesticity and identity through some 250 works by over 80 artists considered to have been influenced, directly or indirectly, by Woolf’s ideas. It was devised for Tate St Ives, then moved to Pallant House, Chichester and to the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.
The approach taken with the surrealist painter, author and occultist Ithell Colquhoun is typical of the way that connections are suggested. Colquhoun used the decalcomania automatic technique, in which paint is squeezed between two surfaces, to create Alcove with its mirror image Alcove II (above) in 1946, the year she moved to Lamorna in West Cornwall. According to the wall text, this is a rare display of both halves of a decalcomania and the images can be interpreted as a cave or tent with folded curtains or parting rocks revealing an abstract scene that feels ritualistic, erotic and private.
These paintings are in The Self in Private section, which includes works revealing private contradictions and conflicting desires, reflecting the way Woolf created multiple narrators and perspectives rather than one authorial voice. Many of the surrealist paintings, automatic drawings, feminist collages and abstract renditions of the subconscious are by artists who present an internal self at odds with public expectations.
For viewers expecting more direct connections, the links suggested, especially for contemporary artists, can seem tenuous. But for ingenuity few rivalled those made by a reviewer who said of the currently resurgent painter Gluck, who is well represented, and Virginia: “They ran in the same art circles and Woolf’s ex-husband Leonard even played a recording of Gluck’s music ‘Dance of the Blessed Spirits’ at the writer’s funeral.”
Landscapes by Colquhoun and Gluck ensure a sizzling start to the exhibition but it is another painting in this section that I’d most gladly take home: Winifred Nicholson’s 1976 oil Glimpse Upon Waking. Most of the canvas is taken up with a pair of yellow striped curtains apparently stirred by a breeze and opened in a V-shape at the top to reveal countryside lit by a rosy sky. What makes it so desirable is that it conveys the same intense joy in existence and pleasure in natural phenomenon as Woolf’s recollection in her autobiographical piece A Sketch of the Past with which curator Laura Smith begins her catalogue essay.
Woolf describes drowsing in her nursery at Talland House, the family holiday home in St Ives. Waves break rhythmically on Porthminster Beach below as light filters through a yellow blind. Woolf comes to believe that if her life could be said to have a base, it is of this memory. “It is of lying and hearing this splash and seeing this light, and feeling, it is almost impossible that I should be here; of feeling the purest ecstasy that I can conceive.”
Ithell Colquhoun, Alcove 11, 1948, oil on board, collection Richard Shillitoe © By kind permission of the Noise
TRAIL@14 AT THE RIVERSIDE GALLERY
I have doubts about taking home the work that first stirred my interest in TRAIL@14, the new exhibition at the Devon Guild of Craftsmen in Bovey Tracey, Devon. Solastalgia combines a 1950s radio with a dead rat sweetly coiled where the stations’ dial should be. The creature shudders when a button is pressed and I fear it might unsettle our two cats, who are dedicated hunters.
Solastalgia is by Janec van Veen, who describes himself as a fantasy taxidermist. Its intriguing title is a neologism coined by philosopher Glenn Albrecht in 2003 to describe a form of psychic distress caused by environmental change. Van Veen is a member of TRAIL, a Teignmouth-based artist-led collective dedicated to raising awareness of environmental issues through making desirable objects from the broken and discarded – often other people’s rubbish.
The work I’d feel more comfortable possessing is Mr Dory and Mr Mackerel by Rhian Wyn Harrison who specialises in repurposing vintage books and maps. In this case it’s a map of the coastal area of Cornwall where I spent my teenage years – hence part of its appeal. I like the determined look on the faces of the fish, not known for expressiveness.
Also covetable is Sam Lock’s exquisitely detailed Hidden Libraries, a large leather-bound volume with a cut-out recess (popular as a drug smuggling device in the 70s) tricked out as a miniature library with tiny books, scrolls, paperweights, inkwell, quills and satchel. It’s one of many richly inventive works in this adventurous, entertaining exhibition.
The exhibition closed on November 27. For information on TRAIL – Teignmouth Recycled Art in the Landscape visit http://www.trailart.co.uk.
The Riverside Gallery opens 7 days a week 10am – 5.30pm. Excellent café and shop. For information on the Devon Guild of Craftsmen visit http://www.crafts.org.uk.
ROYAL WEST OF ENGLAND ACADEMY
166th ANNUAL OPEN
There were an astonishing 3,200 submissions to this year’s exhibition, pared down to 605 which were eventually displayed. Not surprisingly, the viewing experience can be overwhelming, especially in the main gallery dominated by huge canvases like the striking Lost in the Pleasure Gardens by Lisa Wright RWA and a wall of abstracts by invited artist Carol Robertson RWA.
So it was only in the neighbouring smaller Stancomb Wills Gallery, devoted to monochrome works, that I began to relax and enjoy myself, specifically in my first encounter with Michael Hayter’s witty pen & ink drawings including Crocodiles and Dragons (above). According to his website Hayter, whose studio is on Spike Island in Bristol, combines his art practice with work as a veterinary surgeon. This is how he accounts for the animal symbolism and use of hair, urine and blood in some of his artworks. Curiously the writhing dragons are both fierce and sweet. It seems likely Hayter is all too familiar with such stuff of nightmares as he describes his main artistic preoccupation as “a long and passionate affair with depression and all that it entails”.
Animals of a gentler disposition feature in Eventide by PJ Crook MBE RWA, although their relentless surge over the frame also has the sensation of a queasy dream. Country matters abound, as in the wistful Dartmoor landscape in oils by Justine Luis Thorpe and the evocative etching Two Trees under a Chaotic Sky by Mary Gillett. But if there was a work I could take home it would be one of the two small pictures of Snowhill by Kurt Jackson RWA. Best known for his dramatic large-scale paintings of coastal Cornwall, here he captures with affection and subtlety the visual charm of village life. Either would do!
Kurt Jackson Snowhill. Dogs Bark, Rooks Caw 2016: mixed media and collage
The exhibition closed on November 25 but works are still for sale and can be viewed and purchased online: www.shop.rwa.org.uk
LOOKING FOR JEFFERY EDWARDS
Fortunately for me, Jeffery Edwards is no advocate of the doctrine that art should speak for itself. His explanations of his practice and specific works in the wall texts and hand-outs for this enjoyable exhibition of prints at the Brook Gallery in Budleigh Salterton are refreshingly down-to-earth and intensify an already pleasurable visual experience.
The Why I Do It section of the hand-out text has a quote from Scott Fitzgerald “..and so we beat on. Boats against the current. Drawn back ceaselessly into the past.” Edwards says this is burnt into his conscious, because memory is everything. “All of the imagery in the work comes from my experience and it is presented largely as I see it, or at least as I remember it…” Images are representations of events not illustrations of an idea.
The How I Do It section includes his reason for choosing printmaking over painting: “It had no characteristic surface, it was flat. A beautiful graphic medium. Painting was to me a quagmire of brush marks and textures, too redolent of painterly style, too ready to reflect the painter’s genius and ego. A flatterer. It just got in the way.”
His descriptions of imagery are equally non-precious. Of the print I would choose to take home, Morning (above), he writes that it is concerned with the difficulty in taking a first step in the art process, drawing attention to the unopened sketchbook and unsharpened pencils. “The people in the sunny picture (by Thomas Hart Benton, an American painter of the last century and mentor to Jackson Pollock) are busy reaping the harvest, an activity essential to life. In a word, they are working, not fooling around with pencils.”
Looking For Jeffery Edwards consists principally of new prints created with the aid of computer generation. These are described by local art historian Maggie Giraud in publicity for this exhibition as “poised and accomplished” and “a deceptively intimate series of portraits of his work in progress”. There is also a selection of Edwards’s back catalogue, including the witty 1990 print The Cortina of Dr Caligari, above, which gives an insight into the development of this perceptive observer of our times and foibles.
ABSTRACTION MADE VISUAL
Frances Aviva Blane: Broken Heads Broken Paint
“I don’t get it. What does it mean?” is an all too common reaction to abstract art for which Sir Anthony Caro had a pithy answer. When asked the question whilst installing a sculpture outside the Financial Times building, he famously replied “What does your breakfast mean?”
The painter Frances Aviva Blane, who had an exhilarating exhibition at the 12 Star Gallery in Smith Square in London in May and June, also has a neat reply which suggests long experience with the question: “I hope my paintings articulate something before speech. My paintings are not about anything, they are of themselves.”
Confronted with the paintings, the answer may seem curious because as well as the wholly non-figurative compositions she habitually depicts heads which sometimes have aspects of self-portraiture. Her insistence that both forms are abstract made an impression on first encounter with her work, some 15 years ago. “They’re not really heads, they’re experiences,” she told Diana Souhami who wrote the illuminating catalogue essay for Broken Heads Broken Paint.
It’s a rich source of anecdotes – Frances’s father told her he couldn’t sleep in a room with one of her paintings and she carries a work in progress from room to room to live with it. Souhami’s observations are perceptive – she says of the latest pictures “They reveal the conundrum of her painterly intervention: construction in tandem with disintegration not at odds with it; flux and disharmony which take on a creational order.”
But most pertinent to paintings like Box (above), with its luscious, dramatic textures, are the artist’s explanations: “Preoccupation with paint is the fundamental idea in all my work. What happens to paint when you brutalise it with turps or stand oil; when it falls apart; when you’re not really in control. Thick paint, thin paint, no paint. Paint that’s allowed to drip. It’s always different. I like watching paint fragment and take on another form. The unexpected is exciting. Stasis is terrifying.”
Blane is one of the 60 artists selected from 2,700 submissions for the John Moores Painting Prize 2018. Her painting Mother will be on display at Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool until November 18. www.avivablane.com
Howard Hodgkin: Last Paintings
“Sir Howard Hodgkin’s paintings are notoriously difficult to write about so I don’t propose to, beyond saying ‘Go and see them now.'” So wrote Lynn Barber in The Observer Magazine in 1999 and some 20 years on, I echo the sentiment. Yes, it’s a cop-out but justifiable because the only way to experience what Hodgkin was doing is to stand in front of his paintings – if possible for a long time.
And there are few better places to do so than the airy and usually quiet spaces of the Gagosian Gallery in Mayfair where Last Paintings included twenty works never before exhibited in Europe. Also – and hence the title – the final six paintings completed in India shortly before his death in March 2017; five are shown for the first time.
These are an intense response to the country which Hodgkin first visited in 1964, returning almost every subsequent year and recording sensory impressions of sunsets, rains, city, country and interior life. But “recording” over-simplifies his working process, with the essential part memory played, and does not reflect the spontaneity of the imagery, akin to what the art historian Leopold Ettlinger memorably termed “utmost liveliness” when talking of Rembrandt.
Since 1972 all Hodgkin’s paintings have been on wood panels, a choice he used to explain by saying that unlike canvas, “it doesn’t answer back”. Oil paint stays on the surface rather than being absorbed. Increasingly the scars and the grain of the wood – often second-hand – became integral to the painting and frames were not boundaries.
For Hodgkin, the naming of the work, often post-facto, was crucial. “The title is totally important, it’s what the work is about,” he has said. Sometimes his choice seems far from obvious – Through a Glass Darkly has brilliant reds, yellows and greens – at other times uncannily apposite as with my choice of the witty painting I’d take home: Knitting Pattern.
Knitting Pattern 2015-16 © Howard Hodgkin Estate. Photo by Prudence Cuming Associates. Courtesy Gagosian
SCULPTURE @ THE WALLED GARDEN
This summer the wetlands and woodlands, lawns, stream-fed ponds and garden rooms of a three acre site in the village of Moreton in Dorset make a wonderful location for an eclectic collection of sculpture, mostly by artists based in the South West. Topiary and reflections enhance the setting for the playful and imposing split head In Two Minds (main picture above) by Dominic Clare, whose studio is a renovated scrapyard near Bath.
Equally dramatic though harder to spot is Andy Kirkby’s untitled piece with a gilded steel angel’s wing suspended high in a tree, apparently tethered by a rope with an anchor. Kim Francis’s Carrara marble Liminal Seed also lurks in the vegetation – although in this case on the ground. Other works, such as Ian Middleton’s idiosyncratic bronze Collision Course (below), benefit from the generous vistas afforded by spacious lawns.
Displaying sculpture outdoors, especially in bright sunlight or with evening shadows, gives definition to surfaces by intensifying texture and shadows, as with Dave King’s stoneware pieces Curious Others (below) and their neighbour in this lawned area, David Worthington’s pierced sculpture Erythrocyte in seductive red travertine stone.
There’s something likely to appeal to everyone in the variety of materials and styles, from Katarina Rose’s witty adaptation of a mailbox Karma Post to the architectural granite forms resembling fragments of a spiral column of Two Part Invention by John Maine RA – a subtle work that I’d be happy to see in my own garden.
Although the exhibition is over, some work remains and the gardens, café and plant nursery open daily from 10am to 4.30pm. For more information – https://walledgardenmoreton.co.uk or 07786444378.
DORSET ART WEEKS
From May 26 to June 10 throughout Dorset there were over 300 open studios and exhibitions featuring local artists and craftspeople. At many venues there was the opportunity to discuss what’s involved in making the work on show and buy it directly from the makers. Here is a taste of what I found at three places I visited.
Jane Hedges has turned her studio at Little Goyle in Monkton Wylde into a display space for her abstract paintings with the bonus of often witty and playful sculptures by her husband Ian Middleton. It came as a surprise to learn, from his statement on the wall elucidating aspects of her practice, that these richly coloured, interwoven webs of forms are made using only three colours of paint – magenta, yellow and cyan plus white.
Her own statement explains that places evoke emotion and are a starting point. Using photographs and drawings she reduces the subject to a grid then breaks down each square into geometric shapes. “I am using abstraction to generalise particular visual experiences: fragmentation of light through trees, the isolation of views and colour through doors and windows, the illumination of the everyday world through positive and negative shapes.” The complex process involves layers of colours which gradually harmonise and as the rhythms evoke her initial feeling the painting begins to emerge.
On my visit she illustrated how her perception of characteristics of a place which capture her interest led to focusing on elements which eventually re-establish the image by citing the chain-link fences around gardens in the main street of Clovelly. But it would be too literal an interpretation to trace the diagonal forms in Clovelly 2 (above) to these fences because the paintings are started without knowing where they are going and the stages of the process play a crucial part in the end result. Their individuality and compulsive charm is adroitly summarised by Ian Middleton – “contemplative, sensual, meditative”.
An Horizon Problem (above) is a pen and ink drawing by Chris Dunseath in his exhibition at The Gallery at Duke’s in Dorchester. When I requested this work for an illustration he seemed surprised that I chose it for an exhibition in which the key works are sculptures. But on this occasion it was his drawings and prints, with their meticulous attention to detail, that had captivated me.
Dunseath draws when developing sculptural ideas, during the making of the sculpture and once it is finished, to extend the concepts into two-dimensional form. The title An Horizon Problem refers to the scientific quandary of why the Universe is homogenous and isotropic despite distant regions of space failing to be causally connected.
The moon, sky and skyline make a historical reference to an etching by Samuel Palmer called The Weary Ploughman. In the sky the constellation Orion has links to Van Gogh’s Starry Night. The cross-hatched border has partly concealed female names for reasons that remain private. There is an edition of 50 prints of the drawing.
This solo exhibition was awarded to Dunseath as the prizewinner of Dorchester Arts Open. It ranges from sculptures developed as a response to Bronze Age artefacts to pieces influenced by a curiosity about the horizons of theoretical physics. He agrees with physicist Richard Feynman when he referred to the inadequacy of science to capture the marvel of our universe and for the need for art to help bridge the gap between the tangible and the untangible.
A visit to Jacy Wall’s open studio, at Newhouse near Hewood, is advocated not only for the woven tapestries and prints which are her primary concerns but a remarkable record of an ancient trackway near her house, collected into folios titled Partway I & II. There she describes how she began photographing this stretch of hedgebank a year ago, initially struck by the rows of trees, their spacings and sinuous verticals, which have had a strong influence on her printmaking.
Her timing proved uncannily prescient, as earlier this year the large trees in two sections of the hedgebank were cut down to improve access by farm machinery. Although some substitutes were planted further back, she was shocked by the destruction of ‘sense of place’. Partway I has seductive images of the hedgebank as it was. The sculptural stumps of the lost trees provide engaging albeit depressing subjects for Partway II.
Looking through the folder of unframed prints on offer at Wall’s studio I found the etching shown above. This reproduction does not do justice to its velvety texture and intense colours. Of all the impressive and intriguing works that I’ve seen at Dorset Art Weeks, this has preyed on my mind as the one I’d most want to take home.
For contact details and directions visit www.dorsetartsweek.co.uk or pick up a brochure – Jane Hedges 278, Chris Dunseath 205, Jacy Wall 283.
KATE WESTBROOK AT THE MALTHOUSE GALLERY IN LYME REGIS
Kate Westbrook’s atmospheric oil paintings demand intense and lingering attention. These works, from a series made in the last three years, explore the myth of the fatal encounter between Diana, the virginal Roman goddess of the hunt and moon, and the hunter Achtaeon, imaginatively transposed to Dartmoor. Enraged that a mortal has seen her bathing naked, Diana splashes water on him. He is transformed into a deer and killed by his dogs.
The dramatic Diana and Actaeon Diptych, depicting the hunter midway through his mutation with sinisterly observant dogs, is a riveting image, not least for the treatment of the woodland setting, but might make uncomfortable viewing in a domestic setting. The painting I’d love to take home is the quiet, contemplative Diana, Winter Morning, Dartmoor – but it had a red dot by the time I saw it! A moving and memorable exhibition.
May 2018. Curated by Deborah Wood. Catalogue http://www.theartroomtopsham.co.uk
DAVID HAUGHTON IN ST JUST AT PENLEE HOUSE IN PENZANCE
St Just, Version 1 c1955 Private Collection Copyright: The Artist’s Estate
Apart from the appeal of its moody measured abstraction there’s a personal reason why I covet this work, selected from an intriguing exhibition of Haughton’s paintings, etchings and drawings inspired by the mining town of St Just on the Penwith peninsula. That is because it was in the exhibition Six Painters From Cornwall which toured Canada in the mid 1950s and was arranged by one of my literary heroes, Norman Levine.
The Canadian writer first came to St Ives in 1949, a year after Haughton had an epiphany about St Just, which he discovered whilst out on a bike ride one Spring day. They became friends and Levine wrote about him perceptively in the journal The Painter & Sculptor in 1962, including what became a widely quoted account by Haughton of the turning point in his art and life: “I have no idea what caused it, whether it really was the divine and transcendent visitation that it so clearly seemed to be or merely a freak of one’s chemistry. But I do know that it was all important and utterly beautiful, a trance that went beyond logic but never against it, and that I was at home and everything was mine, loving and tender, the landscape and houses a living thing.”
Haughton continued to explore his vision of St Just over the next 30 years despite moving to London to take up a teaching post at the Central School of Art & Design in 1951. Much of his work was destroyed in a studio fire and this is the first solo exhibition since his death in 1991 so it’s a rare opportunity to savour a distinctive talent.
Returning to Levine, a sample of his writing should show why I’d want a painting he admired. In his travel book Canada Made Me, the refusal of a gallery in Edmonton to display a catalogue for Six Painters From Cornwall for fear of theft is contrasted with the panache and expertise with which it was put together: “Then Anthony Froshaug, the typographer, coming over one night to the cottage, the driftwood burning in the fireplace with a salt green flame, his bulky leather jacket sewn together in small strips like the fields of West Penwith, his hair clipped like a monk, and pulling out the long scroll of paper with his workings for the catalogue in the neatest handwriting I have seen.”
January to March 2018 at Penlee House Gallery, Morrab Road, Penzance TR18 4HE