Richard Warren

"Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

Sea, sun and fascism

Having just tried it, I’m not sure I’d wholeheartedly recommend a cruise holiday. (Unless, of course, you like the idea of being imprisoned in a floating holiday camp with a couple of thousand Daily Mail readers.) But at least it took us to Athens, Crete and Rhodes, including the remarkable Palace of the Grand Master of the Knights of Rhodes aka of St John, aka Hospitallers. In the thirties under the Italian occupation, the palace was heavily repaired; the resulting mediaeval-deco “restoration” came across to me as highly staged – vast, uninterrupted, checked stone walls, baroque angels looted out of their context and isolated in bare niches, huge Japanese vases (gifts from an Axis ally), all punctuated by wrought iron chandeliers that only emphasised the empty hardness of the surfaces. With its gratuitously surplus uninhabited spaces, its alien aesthetic of impersonal, almost anti-human, tastefulness and order – anti-human both in scale and in texture – the whole interior felt still drenched in fascism, as if we were wandering through a set for some lost scene from Bertolucci’s Il Conformista.

 

Had the Greeks not seen fit to deconstruct and reclaim all this? How was the fascist period of the Italian occupation regarded now? We’d just been to the monastery at Filerimos, built likewise in the thirties with its Italian Way of the Cross, but also home to an ancient, inexpressibly dolorous and affecting icon of Mary; so how far had the occupation tolerated the Greek Orthodox church? I asked our tour guide.

 

I couldn’t actually make out her eyes behind her sunglasses, but I could tell that they hardened instantly. Her previously modulated voice became intense and emotional. It had been horrible for the people of Rhodes. Horrible. In 1922 they had replaced the old governor with a fascist. Most of the churches had been closed. Children had been forced to learn Italian in school. All opposition had been eliminated. Her mother, as a child, had seen people executed in the street. It had been a dreadful time for Rhodes. She gestured behind her to a large plaque in Italian, still prominent on an outside wall, crediting the palace restoration to Il Duce. My fellow Brits appeared bemused or indifferent.

 

High on one vast checked wall inside we saw carved between roses “Fert”, the motto of the House of Savoy. No one translated; looking it up now, I see that various unlikely acronyms have been suggested, but in simple Latin it can be read as “S/he suffers”. That seems appropriate enough. The next day we found ourselves at Arkadi monastery in Crete, besieged by the Ottoman army in the Cretan revolt of 1866, where a few hundred women and children, barricaded into the powder room, had blown themselves to pulp rather than be taken alive. The attached museum displayed a long hank of human hair, retrieved later from a roof top.

Back on the boat, having finished W G Sebald’s excellent but distressing Rings of Saturn (more journeys, more atrocities), I found myself in need of fresh reading material; the only half decent book on offer in the little shop turned out to be Robert Harris’s Selling Hitler, a fascinatingly repellent account of the forged Hitler diaries scandal of 1983. Following the revelation that Goering’s yacht was appropriated by the British royal family and rechristened the Prince Charles, I read that Hitler’s paintings are technically so poor as to be a doddle for the amateur forger, and so boring that in the final analysis no collector of them really cares whether what they have is faked or real. That evening the ship’s tannoy announced a poolside Last Night of the Proms-themed singalong, to “celebrate all that makes Britain great”. The holiday was not turning out quite as I’d expected.

There are plenty of images of the Grand Master’s Palace online but those above are mine. Click for enlarged slides. I haven’t linked to any image of the icon at Filerimos, as no reproduction or copy really looks like what we saw, nor gives any sense of the experience of being in its physical presence. For the first time, I’m prepared to credit an icon as being an effective and transmitting thing-in-itself. As being in some sense “alive”.

Set that against the deadening art of fascism!

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Living paint: Edwin Lucas’s ‘Resurrection’

To mark this best of all possible days, here is a bit of a cracker (click to enlarge) by the always interesting, and sometimes startling, Edwin G Lucas (1911-1990), the subject of an earlier post on this blog. (A biography and whole galleries of his work can be found here.)

The Resurrection, dated to 1940, is lifted from the Art UK site, where it’s credited to NHS Lothian, the owners, perhaps surprisingly, of nearly 500 paintings. So I guess you might stumble unexpectedly across this abstract expressionist parody of the baroque somewhere along the meandering corridors of an Edinburgh hospital, or at least let’s hope so.

I’m left wondering how Lucas achieved the consistently gorgeous, squidgy, almost munchable plasticity of his rapid brush marks. And how did he get those edges and tonalities into each sweep of paint? Presumably he left the bare strokes to dry off a bit before painstakingly tweaking in the details that transform some of them into teeny tiny people with little beards and haircuts, the multitudes of the redeemed. It’s a feat of technical virtuosity, and a witty celebration of the sheer incarnational lushness of paint, the brush marks coming to life – in more senses than one – before our eyes. And at the heart of it all, the luminous, cross-shaped body of Christ pings from the tomb. Alleluia!

As a rule I disapprove of God as a sky-god, but I rather like the big cartoony egghead Father at the top here.

If the 1940 dating is secure on this, it’s hard to think of anything else comparable. It would be more than a decade before Howard Hodgkin (to whom I’ve compared Lucas in a different respect) would start cramming his spaces with plasticky splatches. In fact, it doesn’t even resemble anything else by Lucas that I recall seeing. Maybe it’s a quite wonderful one-off?

Hell is harrowed. Happy Easter!

Kettle’s Yard: Vortex Gaudier-Brzeska

How have I contrived not to visit Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge until now? But we’ll certainly be going back. More Gaudier-Brzeskas than you can manage, almost to the point of fainting, plus some extraordinary David Jones and Christopher Wood, and a whole lot more besides. In 1926 H S (“Jim”) Ede bought up a couple of thousand drawings and other pieces from the Gaudier estate, following the sad death of Sophie Brzeska, and many of them are still in his preserved home, which forms the core of the expanded “New” Kettle’s Yard, just reopened.

To be honest, the house and its contents are still the important bit. The new bolted-on gallery spaces are a fine asset, but I found the curation of the current show a bit nebulous, and the quality of the contemporary work a little up and down. You can’t grumble though; it’s an amazing place.

Ede’s core mission was to reclaim and to make permanent Gaudier’s standing in the aftermath of his posthumous fall from fashion. And indeed, the more you stare at his work, the more important it appears. Once stuffed away in a box on the margins marked “Interesting cul-de-sacs”, Gaudier’s sculpture has since assumed its proper place at the core of things, articulating a language of form that, in its full and happy integration of the mechanical and the natural, seems more appropriate today than ever. “Plastic soul is intensity of life bursting the plane”.

Here are snaps of some favourite pieces in the house; I haven’t identified them individually as the entire collection can be called up bit by bit in the “collection database” on the Kettle’s Yard website, which also has 360 degree doodads of the interior of the house and a great deal more worth browsing. Photos just can’t do justice to David Jones; his drawing is properly visible only face to face, in its actual scale. But I’ve put some in anyway. Click everything to enlarge as slides.

Christopher Wood

David Jones

 

Henri Gaudier-Brzeska

 

Three whacks at Carlyle

Speaking of militant suffragettism, the centenary of the Vote brings an interesting little display at the National Portrait Gallery, itself on the receiving end at the time. In July 1914 suffragette Anne Hunt took out a butcher’s cleaver and proceeded to remove three slices from Sir John Everett Millais’ portrait of the suitably miserable looking Sir Thomas Carlyle, philosopher, misogynist, apologist for slavery and proto-fascist. Sir John’s pre-Raphaelite vision had long since bitten the dust, and one can only regret that Hunt wasn’t also able to take a chunk out of Millais’ “Bubbles”.

 

A photo, in the NPG’s display, of the canvas “as damaged by Suffragette”, taken in the aftermath, shows clearly three substantial cuts across Carlyle’s pate; Hunt certainly had good aim. The painting itself, a piece of dark brown pomposity that my Grandma would have loved, is, unfortunately, still in the Victorian Gallery, annoyingly restored.

Among other fascinating pieces in the display is a Scotland Yard circular to art galleries with details and surveillance photos of two other women with a record in iconoclasm, one being Mary Richardson, who had taken a “chopper” to the backside of Velazquez’s “Rokeby Venus” at the National.  There’s a particularly good page on all this at the NPG website, by their archivist Bryony Millan. Recommended.

 

Such incidents prompted one of the less likeable broadsides in the Vorticists’ first (1914) edition of Blast, applauding the energy of the attackers but asking suffragettes to “stick to what you understand”. Like knitting and fluffy kittens, perhaps? “Soyez bonnes filles” (Be good little girls), advised Wyndham Lewis or Ezra Pound, whichever was responsible for this unsigned and unfortunate piece of condescension dressed up as affectionate irony. The boys just couldn’t quite stop themselves from sniggering, could they? “Yes, but we don’t really mean it.” Ah, but I think they do. (“You might some day destroy a good picture by accident” is not a bad joke, though.)

Mary Richardson, along with a number of other ex-suffragettes, later joined the British Union of Fascists, with whom Lewis briefly flirted at one point. And we all know about Pound and Mussolini. Carlyle, exponent of the “Great Man” theory of political history, seems to have had the last laugh in all this. Well, you can’t have everything.

The arrest of Dora

I’ve narrowly missed the anniversary of the legislation to allow (some) women to vote, but here’s a wonderful photo of the arrest in 1909 of Dora Marsden, women’s rights campaigner and individualist anarchist, for disrupting the chancellor’s speech at Manchester University, of which she was a graduate, hence her academic robes. A few months later she had a go at Winston Churchill. This extraordinary image is lifted from the flickr photostream of Greater Manchester Police, no less – but who was the photographer? Looking at this photograph, its perspectives so marvellously constructed around the focal point of Marsden’s serene and confident gaze, you can’t help but feel a profound admiration for her.

There are women bystanders in the background, but none of their faces are visible. Dora Marsden’s entourage is all male – a fine assortment of bemusement, amusement, embarrassment, condescension and stern disapproval. Someone really ought to make a poster out of this photo.

Marsden is a thoroughly interesting person, who broke away from the Pankhursts’ WSPU to form the Women’s Freedom League, becoming editor of The Freewoman, The New Freewoman and The Egoist, and in the process promoting and publishing the work of Pound, Joyce, Lewis, Eliot, HD and many other literary modernists. Her Stirnerite individualism later gave way to a personal form of syncretic religious belief. In 1935, sad to say, she was admitted to a psychiatric hospital in Dumfries, where she died in 1960.

Interestingly, according to the flickr blurb, members of her Women’s Freedom League later supplied the first of the Women’s Police Volunteers, an organisation that included many former suffragettes who had seen the insides of police and prison cells. I don’t suppose Dora was among them.

Baby Jesus in the green and pleasant

I seem to have gone a bit AWOL lately on this blog. Again … But things will pick up in the new year.

Meanwhile, here’s Samuel Palmer’s tiny, bejewelled Landscape with the Repose of the Holy Family, or The Rest on the Flight into Egypt, as it’s also known, tucked away in a corner of the Ashmolean. The palm tree(?) at the right seems as much of a late intrusion into the Kentish vales as is the holy family, who are plonked, maybe a bit awkwardly, at the foot of one of Palmer’s trademark diagonals. But are they really refugees on their way to Egypt? No donkey, and it all seems oddly relaxed, settled and timeless … Less of a flight than an arrival.

It’s almost as if Palmer had a little landscape going spare, smoke from the cottage chimney and all, into which they have been visualised and inserted, not as an apparition but as an inculturation. It’s their cottage. In Palmer’s world, the holy lamb of God really is seen on England’s mountains green; waking from a nap, the divine countenance looks up at his mum and dad, then out across our clouded hills and pleasant pastures.

Happy Christmas! In the full sense of those two words.

Repentance and re-painting

Flipping through the Yale UP and National Gallery’s weighty 1991 Rembrandt: the Master & his Workshop (local Oxfam, 99p), I was struck by this, by Ernst van de Wetering, on Rembrandt’s “liberal use of the repentir, or alteration made while painting”:

Nowadays we tend to regard the repentir as the record of a highly individual process, by which the artist revises and improves as he searches for the perfect form, as if regretting his earlier solution. The terms repentir and pentimento are in fact derived from words meaning “repentance”, and in Germany they even spoke of the Reuezug or “stroke of repentance”. There are at least a few pentimenti in any painter’s oeuvre. Titian, though, made countless modifications to his work, and evidently did so without feeling the slightest bit contrite, for traces of the rejected passages are often still visible, and in many cases must have been so in his own day as well.

Repentir: the Arnolfini hand

I’ve long appreciated that “repentance” simply means, quite literally, a re-think, rather than the guilt-fuelled self-pummelling my evangelical upbringing once made of it, but the idea of the artist’s pentimento or correction as an image of the practice of repentance hadn’t occurred to me.

The altering mark is not, in my experience, a matter of self-rebuke, but one approximation of many – another movement a little closer, at least for now, towards the reality of the image. The charcoal adjusts itself towards the conception for which it strives. What is abandoned in the alteration may be left visible, not as bravado, not merely as a sign of confidence but as an act of confession; the nail wounds are still present on the truly shameless hands of the resurrected and perfected Christ. “Confession” in its original sense means acknowledgement, while stigmata are merely “marks”.

The same day, I browsed the latest National Trust magazine and came across a little item on the members’ page that seemed somehow connected; it features Rachel, Rebekah and Sarah, teenage triplets who from the age of 13 have painted single landscapes as a trio:

We painted on one canvas together and did it three times as fast as we would have individually because we could swap when one of us got tired … Rachel is really good at plants and foliage, Sarah is best at skies and Rebekah prefers architecture. So we work out what we each want to do before we start and come up with a plan that plays to our strengths and combines our styles. It can be annoying if someone changes something that one of us has worked on in a certain way, but we always work through it.

The National Trust triplets: Trinitarian

How excellent! Without wishing to deny the individualities of the girls in any way, it’s hard to conceive of a better icon of the creating Trinity, or a better illustration of a process of collective or communitarian repentance, as each member of the godhead, while maintaining her specialism, thoughtfully modifies the strokes of another as they “work through it”.

Tasteful metaphysics: Tristram Hillier

A first sight, ages ago, of one of Tristram Hillier’s Portugese paintings, a view of the square at Viseu, still sticks with me as a memorable moment of viewing panic. Yes, the “local colour” jug and hat in the foreground are stagey and naff. But beyond their (calculatedly?) misleading invitation, the space opens up ominously, peopled only by hostile and imperceptibly lengthening shadows. After a little while you ask yourself, “Where is everybody?” Siesta doesn’t seem an entirely satisfactory explanation.

Viseu, Portugal 1947

 

At the far end of the wall at the left [click to enlarge] is what appears, at a lazy glance, to be a head and shoulders punctuating the perspective, but it’s only a corner pillar. Our eye moves on towards the vanishing point of the dark church door, where it picks up an echoing bollard and shadow beneath the right hand tower. Or is it a black mantilla’d figure? It’s too frustratingly small for us to say, but its absolute, static isolation is disconcerting.

This was painted in 1947, a long time after Hillier is supposed to have shed his Surrealist cred, but it is still pumped full of de Chirico. And pittura metafisica is surely the strongest borrowing of many in Hillier’s work, which at other points shows shades of Nash, Wadsworth, Magritte or Dali (whom Hillier affected to disdain), with here and there a bit of Ravilious, Michael Ayrton or Rex Whistler, even.

A recent Oxfam acquisition for me is A Timeless Journey, slightly unfortunately titled, but otherwise a decent little catalogue of a Hillier show at Bradford and elsewhere in 1983. (It contains such startling information as: “His father, manager of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank in Peking, went blind at the age of thirty and was on the point of shooting himself when persuaded to become a Roman Catholic instead.”) The foreword admits that this exhibition, unexpectedly posthumous after Hillier’s death that January, was “the first serious and comprehensive survey of his whole career”. And a bit of googling suggests that Jenny Pery’s 2008 coffee table study Painter Pilgrim is still
the only real book on the man.

So has Hillier been unfairly neglected? There’s no doubt that many dislike his fall from fellow travelling Surrealism into a kind of baroque English tastefulness, which threatens to undermine, or even invert, the irony of the enigma – a disalienation, a recuperation of the surreal. This tastefulness seems to have survived the war intact, apparently bypassing the nuclear angst of the Apocalypse movement, into which you’d think Hillier might have slotted rather well.

And then the hard edged pedantic realism of his technique can be very alienating. Magritte used this to make an impossible thing solid, so apparently possible; Hiller uses it to to freeze a probable thing (like a Portugese town square), making it worryingly less so, which is fair enough. But the sheer insistence of it, the relentless sharp focus, is not to everyone’s liking.

 

To my mind, Hillier is at his best in industrial mode, where he’s able to evade the picturesque charm that can colour his marine subjects. In paintings such as Pylons (1933 or 1935), Beach Scene with Radio Masts (1934), or La Route des Alpes (1937), there is a genuine, and oddly attractive, unease, not sugared by whimsy or nostalgia, a real live fear of the impersonal, confronting near-future.

Hillier – neglected?

There’s a lot more to be said about Hillier. Even in his lesser moments, he is always interesting, as a browse of his ArtUK page will prove. I notice that he even painted butterflies in 1955 for a Shell Nature Studies guide – yet another Damien Hirst steal.

Futurist socks


A recent impulse buy, at H&M. So what are these about? They don’t sell socks reading “CUBISM”, “NEO-DADA”, “POST-IMPRESSIONISM” – or even “LETTRISM” [joke]. I’m not quite sure the Italian Futurists would have recognised these, despite the clothing experiments of Balla and Depero, but their Russian comrades (see below) liked to scribble on themselves and their fashionable followers, though on faces rather than clothing. The label says these are made in Turkey; is that significant?

Larionov and Goncharova get down to a bit of self-inscription

Snaps of mortality

Here’s a few odd things that turned up around corners on our recent trip up North. Even if I have a camera with me when I’m away, in the event I too often end up using my phone, though at times it gives a sort of pleasing phone-y quality, especially in black and white. (Click for slides and click lower right of the slide for full size.)

1: Wystan in Derbyshire

Who stands, the crux left of the watershed,
On the wet road between the chafing grass
Below him sees dismantled washing-floors,
Snatches of tramline running to the wood,
An industry already comatose,
Yet sparsely living. A ramshackle engine
at Cashwell raises water …

The boy W H Auden’s fascination with industrial dereliction was stimulated partly by, among other things, a holiday in Derbyshire, and the landscape of the lead mining areas contributes to the decaying backdrop of some of his earlier work. Here, by the side of the Cromford canal, are one or two abandoned buildings and the Leawood pumphouse.

 

2: Barbara in Sheffield

Spotted in the womens’ wear at John Lewis’s in Sheffield: Hepworth’s Writings and Conversations roped in as a signifier of  “Modern Rarity”, the flower arrangements in the cover image cunningly extended into the display. As prices of Hepworths continue to spiral beyond all sanity, Barbara herself, in trademark beret and stripey top, is now employed by Lewis’s as a “national treasure”, at least of a northern sort, it being not too far from Wakefield here.

 

3: Damien and Lucian

And on to Chatsworth, the simply too, too large residence of the Devonshires, for the eyeball-bashing “House Style” fashion and costume exhibition, knowingly curated as a stately spectacle of shameless excess. Dramatically subdued lighting made it difficult in places actually to see much of the clothes or to work out what it was that one was unable to see, not that the elbowing crowds of tablet snappers seemed too bothered. In one vast room, housing an elevated, candle-lit, Fellinian parade of sepulchral wedding dresses, I felt a little sorry for the Damien Hirst at the far end, on loan from Sotheby’s but now unable to hold its own against the invading weight of all the other kitsch. (An oversized gilded Saint Bartholomew, holding aloft his flayed skin, this is nicked from Vesalius, as all Hirst’s ideas are nicked.)

It was a relief to struggle out of the sumptuous vampiric gloom to find myself in a small, overlooked, sunlit corner hung with half a dozen Freuds, various Devonshires having trooped off to have themselves done by family friend Lucian in the ‘sixties. After all the spotlit satins, baubles and feathers, what a welcome dose of honesty! The upper classes as they are, beneath the costumes – saggy, vexed, irritable, bored, anonymous. Just people, in fact. The baby has a worrying quality of elderliness, as if Freud had seen in his or her features the sufferings of the adult to come. Now there’s a lesson in mortality that Hirst, a successful dealer in attractive surfaces, just can’t match.

 

4: Poor Keith

Another passed-over piece of corridor holds a sampling from the archive of Jorge Lewinski artist photos purchased by Chatsworth. Among the familiar faces I noticed the less familiar one of Keith Vaughan, photographed by Lewinski in 1963. Set against the company of his life sized young men, all hard edged, vigorous and assured, he himself seems ill at ease, poorly defined, subdued, resentful, as if the stick and the stool are there to give him something to do with his hands and feet. Or perhaps as if instructed, a bit too cleverly, to mimic the pose of the central figure, generating an unhappy irony. It’s too easy, of course, knowing of his suicide in 1977, to read suffering into any image of Vaughan, but looking at this, while admiring the painter one can’t help feeling for the man.