Richard Warren

20thc British art and poetry (mainly), plus bits of my own – "Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

Monthly Archives: December 2011

BLAST-pieces (1): Vortex as Storm Cone

Picking through the two issues of Blast (1914 and 1915), it’s easy to ignore the little head or tail-piece designs that occasionally punctuate the pages. But they are certainly worth a closer look. Someone may already have analysed them thoroughly, but if so I’m not aware of it.

The most recognisable is perhaps the simple Vortex symbol that appears first on the unnumbered page 9 of Blast 1, the title page of the group “Manifesto”, and is repeated on pages 12, 20 and 158. It seems obvious to me that this was not an original design, but an opportunistic use of an existing printer’s block showing a storm cone – the black canvas funnel then in standard use at coast guard shore stations to warn shipping of impending storms. (I can’t quite believe that no one has previously pointed this out. If they have, please leave a comment  and let me know.)

These cones were hoisted in conjunction with similar cylinders (“drums”) to provide a simple but flexible set of signs. A cone with point uppermost universally indicated a storm expected from the North. It is absolutely no coincidence that this image is used on page 12 directly below this declaration:

CURSE
the flabby sky that can manufacture no snow

… But ten years ago we saw distinctly both snow and ice here.
May some vulgarly inventive, but useful person, arise, and restore to us the necessary BLIZZARDS.

LET US ONCE MORE WEAR THE ERMINE OF THE NORTH.

In the “Manifesto”, Vorticism is figured as a storm from the North, a cultural movement of coldness, hardness and clarity, allied to Germanic and Slavic philosophies and in opposition to the flabby, romantic, Mediterranean blur of Italian Futurism and French Cubism. The “Modern World” is credited to “Anglo-Saxon genius” [page 39]. The English are identified as “the inventors of this bareness and hardness”, and exhorted to be the “great enemies of Romance”, whose defenders are “the Romance peoples”, especially the “romantic and sentimental” Latins [page 41]. “Rebels of the North and the South are diametrically opposed species” [page 42]. “What is actual and vital for the South, is ineffectual and unactual in the North” [page 34]. And so on.

This blast is a cold one. The Vorticist era is to be a new Ice Age, and the storm cone is the sign of its coming.

(More on other Blast tail-pieces in another post soon.)

He is born! Emmanuel!

Jacob Epstein, drawing (birth), in 'Blast' 1, 1914

Fuseli and the mucus monkey

 

 

 

 

 

Henry Fuseli’s iconic 1781 painting The Nightmare was much imitated and parodied in its day. It’s good to see that the tradition continues, if only in the shape of Chester the Mucus Monkey, star of the current TV ad for Benylin Mucus Cough, whose leap from the wardrobe onto the victim’s chest is a clear borrowing from Fuseli’s goblinesque squatter. The still here is a little small, but it’s the best I could find. Though for anyone who hasn’t seen it, the whole ad is viewable here.

There seem to be other knowing visual correspondences, too: the brown quality of the shadows, the yellow fabric of the lampshades, the light and shade cast on the rear wall. And Fuseli’s original creature does indeed have a kind of greenish-yellow viscosity to him. Though casting Chester as a (Mexican?) wrestler only seems to confuse the metaphor to me. An unnecessary complication, Benylin people, if you happen to be reading.

Art for Heaven’s Sake: William Blake and Leon Underwood

'Torso' 1923

The opening sentence of John’s Rothenstein’s intro to Christopher Neve’s 1974 critical biography Leon Underwood makes the point that this artist “allowed himself to be half-forgotten”. Half forgotten he has remained, and nearly forty years on Neve’s book remains the only full study, though Ben Whitworth filled a significant gap in 2000 with his book on Underwood’s sculpture. A great deal could be said about Underwood – “father of modern British sculpture”, building on the experiments of Epstein and Gaudier-Brzeska and mentor to Moore and Hepworth; pioneer of white-line lino cutting and wood engraving and tutor to Hughes-Stanton and Gertrude Hermes, and so on.

At its weakest, often later in his career, his work descended into a picturesque or sentimental primitivism; Underwood may have birthed Henry Moore, but the pseudo-modernist figurative “new humanism” of Nigel Konstam et al, and even the “ethnic” soap stone sculptures beloved of import shops, might be seen as in a line of descent from him. But at his most effective, mostly around the mid 1920’s to my mind, his art combined a deep appreciation of non-European cultures with the best advances of modernism. It deserves to be far better known and much more often seen.

"Man must have art for heaven's sake, for the scriptures of his religion define his heaven through intuition & imagination by the most perfect sublimation of his old desires": a wood engraving with typeset inscription, showing Underwood in full Blakeian mode, from 'Art for Heaven's Sake'.

Underwood set himself apart from the prevailing trends of his time by his insistence on the primacy of the subject in art. As he was no kind of social realist, he became, essentially, an early neo-romantic. In his father’s antique shop he had encountered the prints of William Blake, and a Blakeian sensibility informs his philosophising on art, notably in Art for Heaven’s Sake, a little pamphlet published by Faber’s in 1934. Some of the aphoristic “notes” in this verge on the platitudinous, but others have some force.  For instance:

THE NEW RELIGION
The real essence of any organised religion has always been art. The priests have hidden the essence behind the effigies and attributes of personal gods.

THE WISDOM THAT IS NOT WORTH KNOWING
At his exhibition Blake made an appeal to the public to rate art higher than popular aesthetics of his time. He forsook those aesthetic theories after having unsuccessfully tried to make use of them.

A FEW PEARLS IN A VAST DESERT
I have been able to make use of some of the aesthetic theories of to-day. My difficulty with so many of them is that they are too abstract – too dissociated from life to hold poetry which runs out of them as out of a colander.

SYNTHESIS IS THE UNIVERSAL ORDER OF DEVELOPMENT
For the artist, everything counts – even breakages count – and the imaginative artist’s selection, for his purpose, from everything that is available to him must tend towards complexity. His path is therefore one of synthesis, not analysis.

THE MARRIAGE OF HEAVEN AND HELL
I do not consider intuition better for being independent of reason. The ideal is the synthesis of the faculties, as Blake implies by ‘The marriage of Heaven and Hell’.

SCIENCE IS COLD, ART WARM
Science has nothing to do with art – nothing.

Interestingly, given his own immersion in the cultures of Africa and Latin America, Underwood was at pains to play down  the claims of primitivism:

The modern styles which derive from primitive and archaic forms are not, as they stand, valid for the expression of the Western mind; because from their rude abstractions, the Western mind is too distantly removed by its complex development. They can appeal only to its child or immature states.

'Mindslave' 1934

This equation of “primitive” peoples with children (and “primitive” art with child art) has long been discredited. Underwood also repudiated both “mechanics” in art and the “return to mediaevalism” of the Arts and Crafts movement. What he envisaged in their place, beyond his broad appeals to “originality”, “freedom” and “imagination” (all supposedly “English racial traits”), is not made clear, either in his philosophising nor consistently in his artwork, which eventually came to embrace at times a decorative Africanism close to tourist art, or else a sort of twee anatomical athleticism.

But at other times, his work could be astoundingly sure and beautiful, and the best of it far transcends the unevenness of his career, his tendency towards kitsch, and the uncertain rhetoric of his theorising.

Trog, John Minton and ‘Flook’

I was a childhood victim of my parents’ choice of newspaper, the unspeakable Daily Mail, in which Rothermere had once proclaimed “Hurrah for the Blackshirts!” Only one thing was worth reading in the Mail: Flook, the snappy, satirical and beautifully drawn comic strip created in April 1949, a month before my birth. Flook was always drawn by Wally Fawkes as “Trog”; it was written by Fawkes’s fellow jazzmen Humphrey Lyttelton (from 1953) and George Melly (from 1956). Its only rival in the Mail was the hopelessly suburban and unfunny Fred Bassett.

Launched as a strip for children, Flook soon turned savvy and adult, with a great line in social commentary. Flook, the oddly snouted companion of young Rufus, the other central character, became less “magical” and more of an innocent satirical eye, and in the process used far less his ability to metamorphose into objects of his choice.

John Minton’s biographer, Frances Spaulding, mentions in passing that Fawkes took drawing lessons from Minton. This makes a lot of sense when you take a close look at Trog’s style. In the earlier years, as demonstrated in the Flook cache online in the British Cartoon Archive, the line was loose, fluid, almost erratic and amateurish at times, though soon showing the Minton influence. But by the mid ‘fifties it had tightened up wonderfully, and Fawkes became a master at enclosing finer lines of detail within heavier outlines, at hatching and small texture, at an alternating use of white line on black, at integrating silhouettes, and at stacking layers of figures within the enclosed perspective of the individual panel.

His work showed a fondness for pattern reminiscent of Edward Bawden, and he also developed a splendid virtuosity in stylised foliage in the Minton manner, though given the confines of the format, trees and leaves usually had to be tucked into corners. Even Fawkes’s children’s heads took on the distinctive horizontal elongation first seen, for example, in Minton’s Children by the Sea. The only faintly regrettable intrusion was the standard printer’s mechanical dotted grey tone, but Fawkes was cleverly restrained and appropriate in his use of it.

Not too much survives from the mid to late ‘fifties high era of Flook. In 1958 Faber and Faber put out a selection of three recent strips – “Roman in the Gloamin’”, “The Great Battersea Safari” and “S.S. Tapioca Cruise” – in a Giles book type format, titled simply Flook, but sadly the Mail never repeated the experiment. “Roman in the Gloamin’” has been scanned in its entirety here, so I’ll just pick out a few frames from my favourite, “The Great Battersea Safari”.

In this adventure, the permanently adolescent establishment mandarin, Sir Montague ffolly, persuades Flook, as a practical joke, to pose as a rare wild animal in Battersea Park, within the gun sights of the Blimpish big game hunter Buffie Cordite-Smith (“Col. [Retd.] The Bluffs”). The ensuing safari winds through London from Covent Garden to Trafalgar Square, then heads west to cross the river for its Battersea Park denouement, via a rowdy Chelsea party thrown by Caroline Toppe-Draw, Sir Montague’s niece. “Safari” is 20th century British illustration at its best, soaked through with the cultural flavour of the time and place, all beautifully observed.

Here the safari makes a stop at the Fetish coffee bar in the King’s Road. Notice Fawkes’s clever use of silhouette and white line, and the opening up of the perspective of heads, potted plants and paraphernalia inside the coffee bar. Over fifty years on, the bar and its inhabitants seem remarkably modern – only the spelling of “cappuccino” has changed.

The Toppe-Draw party gets completely out of hand. The musical context is nicely sketched in these scenes: at the Fetish coffee bar the musicians play skiffle (“It takes a worried man …”), while at the Cheyne Walk party the hired band play modern jazz, read Kafka during their break, and say things like “She’s a jazz-type chick, the one in the pink. She wants to know like mad too.”

In the black and white counter-changing and the stylised detailing of the bed post, the Blue Room at Toppe-Draw House shows the clear legacy of Braque, maybe via the still lives of Robert MacBryde and other ‘forties and ‘fifties painters.

The Battersea Park setting of the final scene gives Fawkes an opportunity to indulge in Mintonesque leaves and branches, for which he clearly had a considerable affection.

Christ the Unicorn

To be fair to the dear old King James Version in its quatercentenary, we might regret that more accurate versions have jettisoned its happier misconceptions, such as “unicorn” for what has since been authoritatively translated as the more disappointing “wild ox”:

Canst thou bind the unicorn ..? [Job 39: 9]

… thou hast heard me from the horns of the unicorns. [Psalm 22: 21]

He maketh them also to skip like a calf; Lebanon and Sirion like a young unicorn. [Psalm 29: 6]

But my horn shalt thou exalt like the horn of an unicorn … [Psalm 92:10]

And so on. On this basis the Church fathers St Ambrose and St Basil identified Christ with the unicorn, the single horn of salvation, a signification that became well firmed up in the mediaeval mind. A quick google will throw up plenty of websites devoted to this and related unicorn lore, though many of them are, frankly, mere pagan fairy-piss.

The spirited little wood engraving above was cut in 1930 by David Jones, the poet and artist. For Jones just about anything and everything might be a signification of some aspect of the project of redemption, and of the Christ who made of himself a sign on the cross and in the Eucharist. And quite rightly too. Here Jones has Christ as the Unicorn galloping through broken columns, the ruin of worldly Empire. A nice image for Advent.

This version is a reprint from the original block that came loosely inserted in the limited edition of 150, signed by the author, of Kathleen Raine’s pamphlet essay David Jones and the actually loved and known, printed by Golgonooza Press in 1978. Though her poetry was known occasionally to nudge itself in the general direction of fairy-piss, she wrote remarkably well on Jones; her paper is knowledgeable, accessible and illuminating.

My copy came from Mogul Diamonds bookshop, whose owner, Gerald Leach, still has copies left, woodcut included. He also has a selection of other David Jones items.

Tattoo

I don’t know anything about Michael Davies except that he was a Graphic Design student at the Royal from 1955 to 1958. He gained a 2.2. I wonder what became of him? A few years ago his student sketchbook pages came up on eBay, and I bought this one for a tenner. A young man in a t-shirt has taken off his jacket or outer shirt to reveal an elaborate tattoo on his upper arm. The inscription reads:

“tatoo[sic] the first noted. recorded as seen in South Harrow train on a hot evening. Michael Davies”

The loose pen and ink lines are very period, and both style and subject owe something to the example of Keith Vaughan. (This is probably the closest I will ever get to owning a Vaughan …) I’m impressed that someone working in art & design in the mid ‘fifties should have been motivated to sketch examples of tattoo art; I can’t think offhand of other examples.

I imagine that Davies drew this from memory, so the details of the elaborate design are not clear, but I’m guessing that it might be a naval or regimental badge of some kind?

“When Death arrives, he’ll not come shuffling in black felt slippers”

i.m. Gordon Wharton 1929-2011

A kind man and a fine poet

“Elephants we know about, but poets,
in their treasure ground of broken nibs,
blue twilight and garlic scented graves,
and iron bells clanging all the while –

poets dressed in Sunday black
rubbing their trapshut eyes –
who knows where they lie dead and dying,
or coldly raving the moon long?”

Back from oblivion: tracking the poetry of Gordon Wharton

http://www.gordonwharton.co.uk/

Lost in the travelling: the odd novels of Ruthven Todd

More neo-romantic oddity. A new post here (or via the tab up top) on the out of print politico-surrealist fantasies of Ruthven Todd. A little long for here, so made up as a page.

From the Fox’s mouth: a presenter apologises

The July transmissions of James Fox’s British Masters series on BBC 4 came in for much lambasting in this blog (posts of July 12, 19 and 26) and elsewhere. In the 2011 issue of The Journal of Wyndham Lewis Studies (just out), Dr Fox makes an extended seven page apologia/apology (“Response to Paul Edwards”) to “the Wyndham Lewis community”. In the defence of his programmes he manages, perhaps a little disingenuously, to leave himself a fair amount of wriggle room, though in the process he sheds a good deal of interesting light on the depressing business of how TV arts programmes are put together these days, and on the pressures and interests involved.

But his apology for the dismally distasteful treatment of Wyndham Lewis (particularly the notorious brain-brandishing episode) is rounded and generous.

Here (and this is in no way intended as triumphalist) is a little of the flavour:

“In part it was motivated by the desire to hook and provoke an audience whose attention had to be hard-earned and could easily be lost.

… countless inclusions, elisions and omissions were made for televisual rather than art-historical reasons.

Throughout the series … biography was preferred to context, narrative was preferred to analysis, and when discussing artworks, meaning was prioritized over form.

Edwards criticizes the programme’s misinterpretation of Lewis’s overall ambitions and individual works. He is completely right.

… my inability to substantiate those provocative assertions [that Lewis was misogynist, fascist, anti-Semite], or more importantly to qualify them, was such a dramatic simplification of Lewis’s views that it effectively became an inaccuracy.

I do not recall how the decision to film Lewis’s brain was made … This was a major error of judgement … it was also deeply distasteful, and I shall regret my involvement in that sequence for a long time.”