Richard Warren

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

Pantechnicon painter: Wyndham Lewis meets Denis Williams

From the October Gallery in Bloomsbury comes word of their show of work by Aubrey Williams, from their stable of artists, opening on 13 September. Much vibrant abstraction, and definitely worth a look – go here for biog and images. The circumstance that Aubrey Williams was born in Guyana reminds me to take a more considered look at the art of the remarkable Denis Williams, artist, art historian, archaeologist, anthropologist, biographer and novelist – no relation but also born in Guyana, of the same generation as Aubrey W, and also a young painter in post-war London.

Denis Williams

My copy of Evelyn Williams’s The Art of Denis Williams is still in the mail as we speak, but meanwhile there’s plenty to be found online. In passing, I’m struck by the wholehearted enthusiasm demonstrated for the young Williams and his work by the ageing Wyndham Lewis, who reviewed him twice for The Listener, and then did his best to give the young painter a leg up in the art world. Lewis’s collected Listener pieces from 1946 to 1951 are immediately accessible thanks to the invaluable work of Jan Cox and Alan Munton, hosted here (no distinct url’s for articles, but the artist A to Z is in the menu at left).

In July 1949 Lewis took a look at the work of “two coloured artists” at the Berkeley Gallery. That of Ghanaian Kofi Antubam he dismissed quickly, finding it Europeanised and saccharine, but Williams he hailed for his “most remarkable gifts” and on the strength of it asked him round for a chat:

… this descendant (as he tells me) of African slaves responds to European barbarism with enthusiasm. The ‘dark unconscious’, as Lawrence would have called it, staring at itself in the Picassoan mirror, is unquestionably a fascinating spectacle – though when I mentioned Picasso he answered, ‘It is not a case of my going to Picasso, Picasso came to Africa and to me’.

Wyndham Lewis in his later years

The whole question around modernism’s espousal of “primitivism” is now rightly found uncomfortable in several respects; we might also curl the odd toe at some nuances of Lewis’s language, though it would have been considered unusually respectful at the time, and there’s no doubt that Lewis gave generously of his time and effort to assist Williams. The young painter had been in London for three years, the first year on a British Council art scholarship and then working at the Colonial Office. In a few days’ time, he told Lewis, he would be leaving for the ‘States. Lewis promptly took the liberty of giving Williams the New York address of the academic Felix Giovanelli, a close friend of Marshall McLuhan, and wrote to Giovanelli to let him know:

Denis Williams is an extremely intelligent young man … He will not be a disagreeable contact (though I hope he will not be a socially embarrassing one) … you may by chance know a Negro artist? – you might assist him re any charitable organisation to help visiting Negroes of the student type. That sort of thing … it seems abominable for the British Council to give him one years lift, and then drop him. Guiana is no place in which to be a painter. It would be wonderful if he could stay in New York … The main fact in all this is that he is a very unusually promising artist. I hope I have not done the wrong thing in giving this young chap your address …

By late 1950 Williams was back in London, with a one man show at Gimpel Fils, which Lewis reviewed at length:

I do not wish to be guilty of what is called overpraising … but I consider Denis Williams a young man of very remarkable talent. He paints pictures the size of a pantechnicon with as little effort as the blackbird sings. But these huge canvases are not the apparently carefree vocalism of a bird, they are heavy with human import … The canvases are big because there is such a volume, such a weight, of emotion there, requiring a big receptacle into which to pour itself …

Human World, 1950

One of the three large canvases described at some length in the review was Human World (1950), since justly celebrated. Lewis found this a “parade of symbols”, focused around “pregnancy … standing for the new regenerate mankind … encompassed by human obtuseness”. The symbolism he found sympathetic but also a little problematic:

The lot of the Negro, and related to that the lot of the underdog everywhere, is, with Williams, an ever present tragedy. The word ‘Korea’ is for him a violent irritant … Williams is an existentialist, or has been greatly influenced by the teaching of Sartre. ‘Anxiety’ is a word that often recurs in his conversation: the Kierkegaardian ‘Angst’ receives a new interpretation entangled with contemporary politics. ‘Horror’ is another word obsessively frequent.
It is what Anxiety merges in when stimulated
by such symbolic names as ‘Korea’ or ‘MacArthur’.

While gently dissociating himself from Williams’s philosophies, Lewis admits gladly their stimulus to his painting.

All I have to do here is to acclaim these pictures, full of power and vitality. No one interested in what is being done in London today should fail to see them.

Human World has been so much reproduced online that I feel able to add to that accumulation here without permission. It’s an impressively humane and stonkingly powerful piece of painting, and was subsequently purchased to form the basis of the National Collection of Guyana. Today, in the aftermath of the “Windrush Generation” scandal, we might be more inclined to read the painting as an image of a migrant community confronted by an alien and industrial society. And I’m surely not alone in seeing in it clear afterimages of some of the mannerisms of the painter Wyndham Lewis?

In November 1950 Lewis tried again on Williams’s behalf, this time tugging at the sleeve of Herbert Read:

… if he is to survive he must be found a job. Because of colour this presents great difficulties. It is a pity that all this talent should be lost for no better reason than that its possessor’s skin is controversial.

In the end, Lewis helped to enable Williams to obtain a teaching position at the Central School of Art in London. He later taught at the Slade, exhibited at the ICA and went on to participate in the legendary This is Tomorrow exhibition of 1956. Later he came to feel that he was working within a culture that was not his own, and moved on to other forms of success.

For devotees of Lewis, the image of a “pantechnicon”, used by him for the hugeness of Williams’s canvases, rings a bell. In Blast, decades previously, he had characterised Ezra Pound as

Demon pantechnicon driver, busy with removal of old world into new quarters.

If we choose to apply it to Denis Williams, the description takes on a interesting new resonance. Was there, at the back of Lewis’s mind, some distant echo of Pound in Williams?

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National Mistrust

It’s a while since I had the chutzpah to post here any of my own *creative* writing, but while struggling (still) to complete my Great Novel, I stumbled recently across an unconnected and forgotten fragment that may be worth a second look.

Though written over three years ago, much of “National Mistrust” seems to reflect quite well our current mood of national hysteria. Its two surviving parts blend gardening, stately homes and mobility scooters with surveillance, paranoia and some variety of fascist militarism. I suppose it owes something, in a pale kind of way, to Auden’s The Orators of 1932, also cited way back in this post. Much of it was written in the launderette at Dawley, near Telford, during a spell without our own washing machine. Dangerous places, launderettes.

So, to what purpose I know not, “National Mistrust” now has a page with a tab up above, or go here. The illustrations to it are looted from anywhere.

Note: screens in Brunswick, willow, bamboo slat, bamboo cane. Each portable in its own green carrying case. Enhances the patio or balcony. Creates a quick and attractive feature. Combines shade with shelter from sniper fire.

Idea: employ garden statuary for beginners’ target practice. (But not metal – danger of ricochet.)

Query: can garden hose systems be adapted to serve as flame-throwers?

Query: is it possible to train robins?

What are we fighting for?

For the conservation of our Landscape!

An Individual Eye: Edwin G Lucas on show

A couple of posts on this blog – here and here – have celebrated the truly remarkable (and often, as we say these days, left field) work of Scottish painter Edwin G Lucas, who died in 1990. Now comes word from his son Alan of an important show of Lucas’s work, opening on 4th August at the City Art Centre in Edinburgh. Edwin G Lucas: An Individual Eye (more details here) includes more than sixty pieces from public and private collections, tracing the whole of Lucas’s career, his blink-inducing “surrealist” phase included.

It comes with a very welcome catalogue written by Helen E Scott, published in June and now readily available.

The influence of surrealism on Lucas’s work has been rightly noted, but it would inaccurate and be far too narrow to tag him as simply a “surrealist”. Most of the time he is out there in a place all of his own – a place where you haven’t quite been before …

‘Band Saw’ © the artist’s estate

Incidentally, the slide show on the City Art Centre site includes the splendid Band Saw of 1946, which considerably predates the Man and Machine series (1951-57) of David Carr (second item down on this page), to which, I now notice, it relates closely in theme and mood, though without Carr’s spiky cubist superstructure.

The show runs till February 2019. It deserves to be a great success.

Ezra Pound and the universal poem of common humanity

The cages: Pound’s, reinforced, is visible at the extreme left.

In the spring and early summer of 1945 the poet, anti-Semite and fascist collaborator Ezra Pound was confined to a six foot square open steel cage (specially reinforced) at the US Army’s Disciplinary Training Center (DTC) near Pisa, Italy, and then to a tent in the medical compound. He was obliged to pass his imprisonment within earshot of continual but disparate moments of surrounding conversation and exclamation. The names and fragmented voices of his fellow detainees (mostly African American) and their guards are scattered across his Pisan Cantos:

Hey Snag wots in the bibl’?
wot are the books ov the bible?
Name ’em, don’t bullshit ME. (Canto 74: 175)

“c’mon small fry” (74: 406)

“ah certainly dew lak dawgs,
ah goin’ tuh wash you”
(no, not to the author, to the canine unwilling in question)  (79: 34)

(WordPress formatting, unfortunately, doesn’t cope with the complex indentations of Pound’s lines in the original.) The poet seems to have been enormously impressed by the versatility of the inmates’ restricted dictionary of obscenities (Canto 77: 203):

“If you had a f….n’ brain you’d be dangerous”
remarks Romano Ramona
to a by him designated c.s. in the scabies ward
the army vocabulary contains almost 48 words
one verb and participle one substantive  ὕλη   [“hule”, Greek for “matter” or “shit”]
one adjective and one phrase sexless that is
used as a sort of pronoun

Though vast tracts of The Cantos are just clusters of unappetising crossword clues unprovided with solutions, in this case there can be some amusement in trying to work out the exact terms Pound has in mind. A bit further on, at line 232, he returns to the topic of army vocabulary, which now prompts an enigmatic recollection:

there are in fact several coarse expressions used in the
army and Monsieur Barzun had indubitably, an idea, about anno

domini 1910 but I do not know what he has done with it
for I wd/ steal no man’s raison

Henri Martin Barzun

“Monsieur Barzun” is Henri Martin Barzun, French experimental poet and solo proponent of simultanéisme, a promotion of “orchestral” or polyphonic poetry as drama, articulating the voice of the crowd, the modern hymn of collectivity. Barzun settled in the USA after the Great War, where his son Jacques Barzun became a successful and well regarded historian and writer. Barzun senior went on to found an experimental drama school in New York, and continued to write and publish under the brand of “Orphism”. He died in 1973.

His major work, L’Universel Poème, or L’Orphéide, was never published in its entirety, though the Barzun Wiki page states that typescripts survive, and notes the publication of three excerpts in 1913, 1929 and 1930. It seems unlikely that Pound would have been acquainted with Barzun or his work “about anno domini 1910”, but it’s conceivable that during his time in Paris in the early ‘twenties he would have become aware of the  influence of Barzun’s spatial, typographic poetry on the Dadaists with whom he was then engaged. One might also see some diffuse influence in the fragmentary, multi-voiced scripts of The Cantos themselves, despite Pound’s avowal that “I wd/ steal no man’s raison”.

In fact, a fourth excerpt from L’Universel Poème was published in 1939 in Eugene Jolas’ celebrated magazine transition, the inter-war mouthpiece of the European romantic avant-garde. Pound was well aware of transition; in late 1926, writing from Italy, he advised James Joyce to submit the instalments of his “Work in Progress” (to become Finnegans Wake) to Jolas’s first issue. (Pound was himself wary of publishing Joyce’s “circumambient peripherization” in his own new literary magazine, The Exile.)

From October 1938 to April 1939 Pound was visiting London, and in April and May of 1939 New York; transition had distribution centres in both places. transition 27, containing the Barzun extract, is dated 1938 but was actually published in February 1939, just in time for Pound to discover and read it in one or the other city. The volume included, without comment, a “Fragment de l’Universel Poème”, credited simply and without explanation to “Barzun”. It may have been only a fragment, but it required an impressive eight sheet fold-out to be specially printed and bound into the pages. It seems entirely possible to me that Pound had seen this in 1939 but by 1945 had lost the memory of it, the polyphony of the detention centre then triggering what then seemed like a more remote or general recollection.


The passage in the “fragment” (as far as my French is up to it) is a complex chorus of heroic exhortation to “pioneers” (poets, engineers, navigators and so forth) to assault the heavens; it would not have been out of place in the late symbolist context from which Barzun emerged. It appears to be “scored” for about three dozen voices, arranged vertically, and no doubt can only be fully appreciated in performance, if that were feasible. (Only at one point, on the uppermost lines, does conventional language give way to sounds – “rrrr  rreu eu …  ero  vre”, an elision of “hero” and “œuvre” – that hint at any connection with Futurist or Dadaist sound poems, but even here the two words implied are entirely meaningful.)

Though intended to be read from left to right, the fragment as presented may have more value as an early suggestion of a modernist poem as a visual, spatial structure, with obvious relevance for parts of The Cantos. Though there is no central point for a listener, the multiple voices on the page can be understood as caught in fragments, arriving at different times from different directions and at different distances. And in this respect we are back in Pound’s compound.

Given that throughout this period and later Pound remained a virulent, even hysterical, advocate of fascism, and a bitter and unreconstructed anti-Semite, his feelings towards his fellow detainees, mostly black, seem remarkably sympathetic. At several points he likens their situation (and his) to that of their slave forebears in the middle passage:

magna NOX animae  with Barabbas and 2 thieves beside me,
the wards like a slave ship (74: 393)

in limbo no victories, there, are no victories –
that is limbo; between decks of the slaver (77: 174)

Louis Till

John Tytell’s 1987 biography notes that on his way to the Disciplinary Training Center “Pound was handcuffed to a soldier accused of rape and murder”. This may well have been Louis Till (“St Louis Till” as Pound heard his cage-mate call him – a clever pun), of whom he records drily in 74: 171:

and Till was hung yesterday
for murder and rape with trimmings

I wonder if the second line is in Till’s own words, answering Pound’s whispered query as they sat handcuffed together in the van? Elsewhere (76: 85 and 77: 270) Pound records a snatch of overheard conversation where one of the two in Till’s death cell, so possibly Till himself, insists that he has studied Latin, an accomplishment that obviously impressed Pound. Till was hanged in July 1945; as his Wiki page notes, the strength of the evidence against him has recently been called into question. In 1955 Till’s 14 year old son Emmett, accused by a white woman of offensive behaviour, was brutally killed, and his murderers acquitted. In 2017 his accuser finally admitted that her “evidence” had been invented. The Emmett Till murder became an important stimulus to the Civil Rights movement.

Prisoners at the DTC

The “universal poem”, in Barzun’s conception, seems to be essentially an affair not of discord but of solidarity. To whatever extent Pound’s temporary situation inspired in him some feelings of solidarity with that of the African Americans with whom he shared his imprisonment, his anti-Semitism remained at the heart of his “political” convictions until his final period of melancholy silence and disavowal of The Cantos. A piece by Michael Reck in an Evergreen Review of 1968 records a remarkable conversation between Pound and Allen Ginsberg, who, like other Beats, admired Pound’s work and – despite everything – the independence of his convictions:

‘Any good I’ve done has been spoiled by bad intentions – the preoccupation with irrelevant and stupid things,’ Pound replied. And then very slowly, with emphasis, surely conscious of Ginsberg’s being Jewish: ‘But the worst mistake I made was that stupid, suburban prejudice of anti-Semitism. All along that spoiled everything.’

Tytell finds this a moment of “ritual penitence”. Who knows? Suburbanism or irrelevance are hardly the worst points on which we might condemn a sympathy for the Holocaust, but one would still like to take this as a recantation, a request for forgiveness. Myself, I’d hope that even now, Ezra Pound may be standing, as that fine old hymn has it, amazed in the presence of Jesus the Nazarene. If so, that centre of specificity must surely be surrounded by the poetic polyphony of humanity in solidarity, restored to a whole new dimension.

“Let the Gods forgive what I have made,” reads a final fragment of The Cantos. In 1959 Pound revisited the site of the Disciplinary Training Center. It had become a rose nursery.

(It’s quite likely that the Barzun and Till references in The Pisan Cantos have been discussed to death already by Pound commentators; I wouldn’t know. The image here of Henri Martin Barzun has been lifted without permission from gentlerereader.com, a site devoted to Jacques Barzun. That of Louis Till appears at findagrave.com.)

The one good poem of Jacquetta Hawkes

In the ‘forties anyone could write poetry, and did. It was a version of democracy, I suppose, appropriate to a People’s War. Which means there’s still an awful lot of it around on the charity shop shelves. This encourages, let’s admit it, the occasional gratuitous purchase. So how best to approach what, on closer examination, starts to look like an unwise buy? Well, at least this person had a book of poetry published, which is more than I’ve done, so I have to respect that. And then, tucked away among so many disappointing pages, there could always be the odd small gem. Let’s honour that hope.

My latest ‘forties punt is Symbols and Speculations, the one book of poetry by Jacquetta Hawkes, much published and popular archaeologist and writer (Oxfam chazzer, £2.50). Jessie Jacquetta Hopkins was born in 1910.  Graduating from Newnham, Cambridge, she worked in archaeology, marrying fellow digger Christopher Hawkes in 1933, but during the war fell for prolific poet and marginal Bloomsburyite Walter J Turner, taking to poetry herself in 1942. Turner died in 1946. His work –

When I was but thirteen or so
I went into a golden land …

– is understandably ignored today, but one suspects that his hand is heavy on Hawkes’ poems, and with it a version of the metaphysical idealism of Yeats, the master by whom Turner was encouraged. (Hawkes’ father, Cambridge biochemist – and discoverer of vitamins – Frederick Gowland Hopkins, was a first cousin, once removed, of Gerard Manley Hopkins, but that doesn’t seem to have counted for much.) Also in the background of Hawkes’ poetry, more interestingly, is the shade of William Blake, though not always with the happiest results.

Walter J Turner

Symbols and Speculations was published in 1949 by the Cresset Press, which had a bit of literary cachet, publishing Denise Levertov (as Levertoff) in 1946, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman in 1949, and – year after year – the anti-modernist poetry of Ruth Pitter. Hawkes’ poems were selected by John Howard, a founder of Cresset Press and its perpetual literary adviser. (Her Foreword actually says “Hayward”, but this has to be a slip.)

Howard’s jacket blurb hails Hawkes’ “warmth of sensibility which has resisted the cold, intellectual east wind of Cambridge”, but to my mind “sensibility” (a quality too often demanded of both women and poets) is the problem here, and a bit more cold east wind might have helped. Much of this sensibility is aimed at the natural world, where rooks give their old haunting cries, elegant gazelles race on frail hoofs,  twinkling throngs of linnets fly, and so on. These creatures are at the good end of an inverted Chain of Being that descends nastily to brutalised modern humans via some unspecified Fall; for Hawkes archaeology seems to be a form of Golden Age romanticism, in which the painful toil of our more remote forebears is more than redeemed by their admirable authenticity, borrowed (for a while) from the animals.

Jacquetta Hawkes

Oddly, for a body of poems written between 1942 and 1948, the War never makes an appearance. Humans may now be “herded in alien ways” along “the hollow sockets of the street”, but there is no need, thank goodness, to organise a better society; all that’s required is to dig down to the remains of previous, better streets and to commune a while with the spirits of our forebears until we touch again our lost innocence.

Hawkes’ longest and hardest worked poem, “Man in Nature”, recounts an excavation in Palestine in the ‘thirties in which a prehistoric skeleton is uncovered. A promising enough subject, but it all goes terribly exotic and oriental, with the approaching silent feet of camels and somebody playing Mozart on an oboe in the tomb. (Mozart? An oboe?) At the climax Hawkes experiences some sort of epiphany:

Now from my rock I heard the passing bell,
Silence fell back behind the silent feet,
And as towards the moon I bared my face
From those full tears that hung below each lid
There sprang a track, straight-sided, into space
A shining track that through my vision slid
To span all reaches of the universe.
It seemed, as under me the great globe swung,
I knew some answer, unambiguous –
But that was long ago, and I was young.

Yes, things were so much simpler back at the beginning of time. If only we could remember it! This isn’t ‘forties neo-romanticism; in fact it’s not neo-anything. It’s still somewhere in the eighteen nineties, all so time-fluxed, so universalising, so theosophical.

But it’s all too easy for me to sit here mocking this stuff. If Symbols and Speculations is not headed for the recycling bin, what am I going to salvage from it? There are, admittedly, some good opening moments. For instance:

Far to the north, here on the earth’s pale forehead,
Through the green mapwork of the Orcades
The boat leaves land behind it, more land lies before it,
We are lost between shifting sky and shifting seas.

That’s fine; I like that. Unfortunately, stanzas two, three and their successors are already lined up at the cliff edge. Or take the first half of “Intimations” (a too typically dreadful Hawkes title):

What was it that just before the event on Salisbury station
Christopher Wood caught between a muslin cap and the ocean?
What is it that Greco’s Christ greets from the garden?

That’s more like it! Especially the Christopher Wood bit. But then the last three lines deliver the answer:

There was something my beloved knew when, a seabird, he was borne on the silence above me
And which opens its wings across the evening sky when I ride home wearily.
What is this invisible butterfly that lures man even along life’s narrowing alley?

No. Noooooo … However, just as I’m about to give up, throw the book away and ride home wearily myself, following my invisible butterfly along life’s narrowing alley, I come across this, tucked away at the bottom of page 20:

DRESS

She who must suffer most
Her dress shall be the best,
Neglecting not at all
Slim glove or slender waist.
She who must suffer most
Goes like an eager bride
Being in love’s own dress
Suitably crucified.

Yes. At last. I think she’s nailed it. Something simple, direct but affecting, sparse but graceful, in a lyrical, Blakean mode that is not whipped up into kitsch, but is entirely appropriate to the personal pain in which the poem is founded. And personal pain is, as we know, rarely a wise stimulus for poetry that aims to be anything more than therapeutic, so all credit here. (It is also, in the best sense, if I can say this, a woman’s poem, befitting an archaeologist who proposed that the Minoan civilisation was ruled by a dynasty of benevolent queens.) Thanks to this one, rather anthologisable little gem, Symbols and Speculations is saved, earning its centimetre back on my shelf. Phew.

At about this time, Hawkes met J B Priestley, marrying him in 1953. By all accounts it was a most loving partnership. In 1958 she helped found the CND. She published no more poems.

Do the character and underlying philosophy of her poetry throw any light on the validity of her professional interpretations as an archaeologist? That’s a good question, but one I’m not qualified to answer. We might also wonder if current understandings and reconstructions of our remote past and its remains are still coloured by similar romanticisms.

Memorial and no memorial

There’s a fair bit already on this site about waspish blond poet James Burns Singer, mostly via the “Transparent Prisoner” tabs above. Here’s a bit more.

From the late ‘fifties Burns Singer was based in Cambridge, where he married pioneering black psychologist, child psychotherapist and Fellow of Clare Hall, Marie Battle. In his intro to Singer’s 1970 Collected, W A S Keir notes that after the poet’s too early death in 1964 aged 36, his ashes were scattered at sea, but that “on 24th July 1966, a memorial stone was dedicated to his memory in Little St Mary’s Churchyard, Cambridge.” Anne Cluysenaar also mentions it in her intro to the 1977 Selected.

So where and what exactly is this memorial? On my first visit it avoided me, and I wondered if it had actually existed, or had been removed, though to be fair I was struggling to stay conscious in the teeth of a howling winter’s gale in March, which shortened my time shivering and poking about in the churchyard. When I asked afterwards, none of the kind people at St Mary’s (thank you, Christine Tipple) had any knowledge of it, but on my latest visit it finally revealed itself. In case anyone else wants to take a look, the memorial is on the left among the ranks of small stones set into the ground at the street end, which at first I’d assumed marked only burials of ashes. It’s worn and mottled, but it still reads:

TO THE MEMORY OF
JAMES BURNS SINGER
POET AND MARINE BIOLOGIST
1928 – 1964
AND HIS WIFE
MARIE BATTLE SINGER
PSYCHOANALYST
1910 – 1985

That’s a fine inscription. I’m not sure whether this is the original 1966 stone with an added bit, or a 1985 replacement, though I imagine the first. Who re-dedicated it to Marie Battle Singer, I wouldn’t know. My pics (click to enlarge) show the memorial and its location, and I’ll throw in an awkward selfie-with-stone for good measure. (Tricky angle.)

 

I should dedicate this post, not that it’s anywhere near worthy of him, to another Cambridge poet, my friend Bill Bennett, who died, very sadly, three weeks ago.  Though he had edited the earliest editions of Perfect Bound, the influential ‘seventies “Cambridge school” poetry magazine, he was himself published surprisingly rarely. Nevertheless, he saw as a poet, wrote as a poet, and lived as a poet – and as much more too. An entirely remarkable man. No stone for him, just woodland, as it should be.

Us and Mr Jones: the Roberts meet David

It’s a small world, and once it was even smaller. In Thomas Dilworth’s new biography of David Jones (scrupulously detailed and documented and full of interesting moments) I was surprised to find this:

[Robert] Buhler sent ‘quite a number’ of younger painters to see [David Jones], including Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde, known as ‘the Roberts’. They were Glasgow Scots nationalists, openly homosexual, interesting talkers, fine storytellers, warm and charming, but usually too drunk, Jones found, to converse with properly. Liking his pictures and finding in them encouragement for their own
non-abstract work, ‘they were’, Buhler said, ‘mad about him’.

(There’s more on both Jones and the Two Roberts elsewhere on this site; use the tags – down on the right – and/or the two “Colquhoun and MacBryde” page tabs – up the top.)

This was in 1943, and is referenced to Dilworth’s interviews with the painter Robert Buhler in the ‘eighties. I was surprised because neither Jones nor Buhler show up at all in Roger Bristow’s fine book on the Roberts, The Last Bohemians, nor in the ‘forties chapter (by Patrick Elliott and Adrian Clark) in the National Galleries Scotland picture book of the Roberts’ 2014 show.

 

But this meeting does make sense, at least to the extent that Jones and the Roberts can be seen to share certain concerns: a folkloric sensibility, forms of Celtic heritage, the supreme value of the drawn line. In other important respects – colour, texture – they seem poles apart, but the heavy post-Picasso angularity of the Roberts’ work from about 1945 onwards was yet to come, and at this time it still employed a certain Palmerish fluidity of which Jones would have approved.

John Davenport by Robert Buhler

The odd man out here is the third Robert, Robert Buhler, of whom I’d not heard before. The link is Prudence Pelham, one of the great unrequited loves of Jones’ life, who became Buhler’s partner (and changed her name to his by deed poll) in 1943. Four years later Buhler became an RA; Jones later declined the offer of his own nomination, declaring that to be accepted by the RA would be ‘an absolutely disgusting betrayal of everything I ever believed in’. Buhler seems to have combined a Bohemian lifestyle with a rather safe approach to painting that must have proved popular. His Art UK page shows a large number of perfectly competent but unexciting landscapes that fall somewhere between Impressionism and the Euston Road School, plus some very brown portraits of notables, from which the sitters (Spender and Auden among them) struggle to emerge alive. An exception is a rather more animated image of the ubiquitous John Davenport, ghost writer for Augustus John, partner in parody with Dylan Thomas, and much else of
considerable interest.

 

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!

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