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: January 2012

Attempts at Tyros

 

 

 

 

And very much attempts. The reference is to Wyndham Lewis’s 1920 drawings and paintings of “Tyros” – “immense novices” who “brandish their appetites in their faces, lay bare their teeth in a valedictory, inviting, or merely substantial laugh”. Lewis’s Tyros display the authentic rictus grin; mine only manage to snarl or look puzzled. One does not aim to imitate Lewis’s style (a hell of a lot harder than it looks, anyway), but it might be nice to achieve something of his economy. The relation between some of his work and cartoons is an interesting one.

John Turnbull: English Aeropittura

What is known about John Armstrong Turnbull, ex-Royal Flying Corps observer and pilot, who made what appears to have been a very brief artistic career exhibiting with the ex-Vorticists and others in “Group X” in 1920? It’s clear that Wyndham Lewis had a high regard for his work, and one can see why from this painting, Air Fight of 1919, done for the Beaverbrook war artist programme, and now in the Canadian War Museum. This is wonderfully complex, and rather spikier than Nevinson’s war planes of the same era. It belongs (despite its lack of sub-cubist spatial fragmentation) up there with the later aeropittura of il secondo futurismo – Dottori, Crali etc. “Airman Turnbull vanished with the same jet-like speed with which he had flown in upon us,” recalled William Roberts in 1957. But to where did he vanish? And where’s the rest of his work?

Dylan Thomas by Jessica Dismorr

My first page of bits and pieces about George Barker included a somewhat idealised portrait drawing of the poet as a young dreamer by Jessica Dismorr, abstract painter and ex-Vorticist, dated to 1935. Here (left below) is a companion piece by Dismorr (given as 1934/35) of Dylan Thomas as a cherubic twenty year old, marked “DT” and initialled(?) by Dismorr. The technique is equally slack, and the effect equally Hollywood, but this is maybe a better likeness than the Barker. One wonders how many other bright young poets she sketched, perhaps in a back room at David Archer’s Parton Street Bookshop – David Gascoyne? John Cornford?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dismorr’s portrait paintings get away with it by virtue of their painterliness and superb colour sense, qualities that are not there to save the drawings. Nice little biographical curiosities, though. The Dylan Thomas is available at Wilson Stephens Fine Art, and you’d still get a bit of change back from two grand.

The invading gospel of Jack Clemo

Jack Clemo by Lionel Miskin

In the deep wood dwells a demon
Taller than any tree –
His prison bars are the sailing stars,
His jailer is the sea.

He walks the white hills of Egypt
Reading the map of clay
– And through his night there moves the light
Artillery of day.

(Charles Causley, “Homage to Jack Clemo”)

A few paragraphs in honour of the deaf (for most of his life) and blind (for much of his adulthood) Cornish poet Jack Clemo, who died in 1994. For many years Clemo lived in the same tiny cottage in the heart of the Cornish china-clay quarries – “the lunar and lunatic landscape of the moon: a weird, white world dusted over with the colour of sex,” as Cornish balladeer Charles Causley put it. (A geometric landscape also vividly shown in the paintings of Herbert Truman.) Somehow Clemo maintained a vivid awareness that sustained his writing to the end, even though in his deafness and blindness his mother, and later his wife Ruth, could communicate with him only by tracing letters by fingertip on the palm of his hand.

Though Clemo’s work is not particularly well remembered these days, Bloodaxe and others have kept him in print over recent decades, and there is a decent amount about him online, such as this informative obituary, portrait photos at the National Portrait Gallery, his diaries and manuscripts, together with books from his working library at Exeter University, a nice reminiscence by T R Hummer of a visit to the Clemo’s in Weymouth in the ‘eighties, and so on.

He was content to write simply, often in lines of varying length chopped up by persistent terminal rhymes, for he mistrusted, on religious grounds, all forms of sophistication:

I cannot speak their language; I am one
Who feels the doggerel of Heaven
Purge earth of poetry …

(“The Excavator”)

Having shunned any development of poetic form, he is celebrated now mostly for his sheer Cornishness, or for his remarkable overcoming of background poverty and physical disabilities. But to me, what is extraordinary in his work is its defining theological content; Clemo’s austere non-conformist upbringing and the transcendent austerity of his surroundings met with the demands of a sensitive and sensuous nature that had to struggle with the imprisonment of sensory deprivation, to make for a stark, uncompromising, Calvinist mysticism that mellowed only in his later years. Reading Clemo is a direct challenge to anyone’s warm and fuzzy Christian certainties. His God, if not silent or obstructive –

There squats amidst these pyramids
The Sphinx-mood of a Deity …

(“Clay-Land Moods”)

You would not hear my voice
And how could I hear Yours
When you were slamming, slamming all my doors?

(“Prisoner of God”)

– is downright persecutory. For Clemo, the Calvinist notion of predestined election became a “divine bludgeoning”, a dark working of the relentless, imprisoning will of God. (Though such individual election is not exclusive; the non-elect are not conversely damned.) In “The Excavator” this will is compared to that machine’s sadistic gouging of the violated material of the clay-pit:

The bars now hinged o’erhead and drooping form
A Cross that lacks the symmetry
Of those in churches, but is more
Like His whose stooping tore
The vitals from our world’s foul secrecy …

… Keep far from me all loveliness, O God,
And let me laud
Thy meaner moods, so long unprized;
The motions of that twisted, dark,
Deliberate crucial Will
I feel deep-grinding still
Under the dripping clay with which I am baptized.

The clay-pit speaks of Christ because it is a de-beautified and anti-natural world. Sentiment or beauty, flowers or music, are inadequate or mistaken expressions of the divine, given that Nature is merely the surface of a fallen creation:

If you were nature’s child
I could not love you, for I shun
Corrupted trees and flowers which the sun
Kindled in disobedience …

… Hell snickers in the chatter of a starling,
And fleers in each sunrise,
Because one Eastern tale
That makes creation pale
Is known to me and true.
The Christian nightmare holds me, darling –
Creatively, as I hold you.

(“The New Creation”)

Only the baptism of the believer can make a person “lovable” (in the fullest sense of that word). Love is

… full-grown Dogma’s offspring,
Election’s child,
Making the wild
Heats of our blood an offering.

(“A Calvinist in Love”)

(“Dogma” here is an entirely positive term – doctrine received on the authority of the church and scripture, rather than on the basis of experience or reason – as distinct from our casually pejorative use of “dogmatic”.) This possibility of redeemed sexual love (“creed-embedded marriage”) was a central preoccupation of Clemo’s, much explored in what he termed his “strange contacts on spiritual and emotional borderlines”. In his 1949 autobiography Confession of a Rebel he makes a remarkably powerful and accessible case for the sensual superiority of a non-ascetic and unashamed puritanism:

The Christian and the unbeliever inhabit different worlds, and nowhere is the gulf between them wider than in sex experience which seems most common to all men. The thrill of being in love is short-lived for the worldling because it is for him a process entirely inside Nature and therefore soon burnt out. The Christian, however, cannot be burnt out in his love for a woman because he has already been burnt out in the stress of conversion; the life that animates him spiritually is no longer his own but Christ’s. This divine life controls his sensuous reactions, so that the feminine glamour which is to the “natural” man irresistible is to the Christian physically repellent, while the unadorned simplicity which the worldling finds dull and unexciting is for the Christian an object of sensuous ravishment. When St Paul forbade Christian women to wear jewellery or use artificial beauty aids he was merely recognizing the existence of this law – a law which the modern critics of Paul’s attitude to sex seem never to have heard of. Christianity does not condemn the glittering fashions of sophistication because they rouse sexual desire but because for the Christian they paralyse it … I do not suggest that Christians reach this level automatically; but I do insist that this is a fundamental law of Christian experience and not a pathological peculiarity of my own.

(My emphasis. The argument is male-centrically worded, but is capable of a two-way application.) With the sermons of C H Spurgeon and the novels of D H Lawrence sat in happy adjacency on his bookshelf, Clemo could bring together – without a thought of irony – the cross of Christ, his penis and a mechanical digger in a single image:

I fondle and understand
In lonely worship this malicious tool.

No wonder that some of his churchgoing neighbours considered him, as he recalled, an “uncouth village fundamentalist with an unpleasant erotic streak”!

His insights, won at such personal cost, command respect and demand serious consideration by Christians, particularly at a time like ours when the versions of cheap grace offered by a thin teenage evangelicalism on the one hand, and an apologetic, conforming and reductive liberalism on the other, appear symmetrically unsatisfying.

Charles Causley (looking very schoolmasterly) with Clemo

A small afterthought: one puzzlement to me is why Clemo and his fellow poet W S Graham seem to have shown no awareness of each other’s work, given the extent of their shared years in Cornwall. Clemo was befriended by Charles Causley, who in turn was in touch with Graham, as the latter’s letters show. Poles apart they may have been in many ways, but what might they have made of each other?

When Reuben met Grace

Reuben Mednikoff, 'King of the Castle', 1938

A word in honour of British Surrealism’s oddest couple, the wonderful Mednikoff and Pailthorpe. After Grace Pailthorpe, psychoanalyst and mother figure, and Reuben Mednikoff, painter and child substitute, fell for each other (despite – or maybe because of – a two and a bit decades’ age gap) at a party given in 1935 by Victor Neuberg (forgotten Swinburnean poet and ex-acolyte of Aleister Crowley), they embarked promptly on a decade and a half of heroically intensive mutual psychoanalysis, using automatic drawing and painting as their chosen therapeutic method; in the process they generated hundreds of extraordinary artworks and uncounted pages of notes and interpretations. Much of their delving involved regression to infantile or even intra-uterine experience, and in late 1936 they developed a shared baby-talk language called “Curucuchoo”, in which they wrote a number of texts.

Reuben Mednikoff

 

Grace Pailthorpe

 

When their direction was deemed to diverge from the orthodoxy then required of the British surrealist group, their summary expulsion from it was engineered by E L T Mesens, bumptious and untalented Trotskyist, self-appointed group leader and André Breton’s mini-me. In 1940 the pair fled to New York, returning to England after the war. In 1948, Mednikoff was “adopted” by his mumsy lover, changing his name to Richard Pailthorpe.

Mednikoff, 'Bulbous Figure', c 1935

It’s hardly surprising that after fifteen years of squelchy, labyrinthine navel gazing, their project wound up as a school of art therapy; finally in the mid-sixties it descended inevitably into new-ageiness as the old-age duo took to the sub-Theosophical teachings of Alice A Bailey. Grace Pailthorpe died in 1971. Reuben Mednikoff, perhaps unable to live without her, died a few months later.

There is only one book about them – Sluice Gates of the Mind, the expanded catalogue to the 1998 exhibition of their work at the City Art Gallery, Leeds. This is well furnished with colour plates and original documents; it contains three substantial texts, but owes most to the exertions of Andrew Wilson. It’s on offer in some places (like many art books) at hopelessly silly prices, but I managed an as-new copy for a tenner.

Short of this, a quick starting point might be this breezy review at artcornwall.org. More determined readers might try the 2010 PhD thesis on the pair by Lee Ann Montanaro, downloadable as a pdf from the University of Edinburgh. It’s an academic study, so it proceeds at a stately pace, but her research has been grounded most thoroughly in primary materials from the rich Pailthorpe and Mednikoff archive at the Dean Gallery in Edinburgh, making this a highly informed piece of work. The only regret is that Montanaro cuts off her account at 1940. A curious side issue on which she sheds some light is the tangled fate of Pailthorpe and Mednikoff’s papers before they were acquired as an archive, in relation to the unpublished study of Dr David Rumney.

Mednikoff, 'April 21 1935 - 4'

At this distance, as Freudian and Kleinian theory slide away into the Museum of Discredited Ideas, the endless and obsessive interpretations and analytical descriptions of the drawings and paintings tend to shed their fascination. The detailed identifications of murky and brutal symbolisms – mother, anus, penis, faeces etc – are extraordinary and compelling in small doses, but there’s only so much of this stuff that you might want to read. It’s the images that last. Of the two image makers, Pailthorpe, being untrained, is the lesser artist, though much of her work has a naïve/brut appeal. But Mednikoff, with the skills and experience of a commercial artist, brings an excitingly convincing plasticity to his automatic squiggles, which morph wonderfully and tonally into three dimensions, or suggest unpleasant cartoons drawn by Joan Miró on acid.

Pailthorpe, 'The Blazing Infant', 1940

By the ‘sixties, Pailthorpe’s paintings had become rather more decorative, with loose washes of primary colour. Much happier, in fact. Which suggests a resolution of some sort at the end of all those desperate years of birth trauma and castration. One would like to think so. But in any case, what a heroic endeavour! They may have sailed on Sargasso seas, but Pailthorpe and Mednikoff were true Argonauts of the Unconscious. We should salute them, at the very least, for the near-superhuman stature of their obsessions.

Mednikoff, 'Caucasian Blancmange', 1938

A little gallery for Helen Saunders

Rounding off a recent preoccupation with Vorticism, here (or via the tab above) is a thumbnail gallery of all the Vorticist pieces I can find by the annoyingly under-rated Helen Saunders, mentioned in a couple of recent posts. We usually come across her work in two’s and three’s, but assembled in bulk (or at least as much bulk as I can manage) it certainly impresses, though surviving pieces can only be a fraction of what she actually produced.

A great colourist, and clearly (at that period) a woman for the Machine Age.

Images © Estate of Helen Saunders

Mashing up the Vortex

While I’m in the business of blessing Blast, a short thought or two about the “lost” number three of the Vorticist mag.

“I think your idea of … the launching of a fresh number of Blast, which you could call an American Number, is an excellent notion,” Wyndham Lewis wrote from his army training camp at Weymouth to Ezra Pound in late April 1916. “You would have to conduct it largely, I expect. I personally should be very pleased to see Blast do another lap.” As Lewis envisaged it, the contents of a third number might have included “a drawing or two & a little writing” of his own, reproductions of works shown at the Vorticist group show in New York (including one in colour), Pound’s Byronic satire “L’Homme Moyen Sensuel” (which eventually appeared in the Little Review in 1917), and a contribution of some sort by Eliot.

Even after the “American Number” proved a non-starter, Lewis was still proposing a third issue as late as 1919. Writing to John Quinn, he confidently described the likely contents as his own essay on art and architecture, The Caliph’s Design: Architects! Where is your Vortex? (separately published the same year, in the event), “fifteen or twenty designs” by half a dozen contributors, a story by himself and “a long, new poem by Eliot”. Pound (“vanished into France and … in a mist of recuperation and romance”) was not expected to be involved. Publication was anticipated in November. (The “long, new poem” from Eliot is curious: does anything in his 1919 Poems qualify? Or does this mean that a preliminary draft of part of The Waste Land was already in existence at this early date?)

In the event there was of course no third lap, though the “American Number” was eventually reanimated, after a fashion, as the hefty mish-mash of academic criticism, modern creative writing and associated bits and bobs put out in 1984 as Blast 3 by diehard Lewis re-publishers Black Sparrow Press of California. Lots of fun, but, inevitably, not kwite the bisnez, as Ezra might have put it.

I’m surprised that there haven’t been countless other attempts at a Blast 3, if only at the cover. Or have there? All I can find is a Blast 3 cover “remake” thread from 2010 at the “Whitechapel” website run by “Freakangels” webcomic creator Warren Ellis. There are five pages of entries from various digitty-comicky-graphicky people, though few of them really hit the mark, to be honest. But here’s a half dozen that I felt made a real attempt to be true to the spirit of the original while dragging it a few decades into an alternative future; the low-tech design of the first two seems particularly apposite.

Oxbrow

J Garrattley

Kuru93

David Bednarski

Luis Fuentes

Paul Sizer

Though at the end of the day, this sort of thing doesn’t amount to much more than deco-punk game-play. As steampunk subsides comfortably into commercial neo-Victorian whimsy, the modernist era might appear to offer an edgier source for retro-futurism. Having said that, the Tate Vorticist show last summer was flagged up here for the dieselpunk community, but apparently with little interest; in these circles, film noir cosplay, vintage vehicles or closet stormtrooperdom seem a bigger pull than modernist art. But pickiness about the real culture of the fetishised past might actually indicate a developing boredom with it – hence, our mash-up version of the ‘thirties or whenever is expected to be more interesting than the real thing. Besides being a convenient laziness, a refusal to engage for real. In our parodic, superficial, postmodern charades we really are becoming The Dancers at the End of Time.

Wyndham Lewis on ShagTree

Amazing what Google can throw up. And what some “entertainment” sites can generate. While trawling for references to Vorticist artist Helen Saunders (see previous post), I was delighted to find that Wyndham Lewis has his own page on ShagTree.com, a site (for people who need to get out more often) that documents “celebrity relationships and dating details” in six degrees of separation (though separation may be the wrong term here), with particular reference to drug habits and STD’s. Lewis’s page gives options for Helen Saunders (as shown below) whom he certainly was knocking off, Kate Lechmere (ditto), Beatrice Hastings (ditto) and Jessie Dismorr (not as far as I know). The list could be considerably extended over a longer time frame, I imagine.

The automatically selected small ads (“Want to meet mature singles?”, “shocking free horoscope”) seem apposite enough, though I’m not so sure about the offers of tree surgeons in Maidenhead, Luton or Stevenage. Well, Maidenhead maybe …

Also, they haven’t quite got Lewis’s age right for the time of this liaison.

BLAST-pieces (2): some Vorticist colophons

Throughout the two issues of Blast, the Vorticist journal of 1914-5, are scattered small decorative head or tail-pieces that, like standard printer’s motifs, serve to fill in a blank space at the close of an article etc.

Blast 2:47 – design by Dorothy Shakespear

These designs are interesting, in that they condense, contain, and even simplify the often unbounded, map-like expansions of shapes that form larger Vorticist compositions. They are not excerpts from the latter, but are self-contained, without relying on a rectangular frame. (A clear exception is a small rectangular design on page 47 of Blast 2, signed “D S” for Dorothy Shakespear, which, while used as a tail-piece, may not have been intended originally for quite this purpose.) In certain respects they resemble the hand held ornaments or “talismans” of Gaudier-Brzeska, though they are more classically Vorticist than these, by-passing his reliance on “primitive” natural forms.

Their existence raises the interesting issue of Vorticist ornament – though maybe this should properly be thought of as a contradiction in terms? There are antecedents in the motifs used by Wyndham Lewis in his interior decorations for the Countess of Drogheda, though these appear more compact and “African”. The Rebel Art Centre never quite got its act together in competition to the Omega, but what might Vorticist fabrics and lampshades have looked like?

Blast 1:4

The largest design, used once only on page 4 of Blast 1, opposite the “Contents” page, seems separate to the others in its style and intention. This is clearly an announcement – a stylised (almost cartoonish) explosion, a cubistic “blast”, but here the blast is that of an anarchist bomb, rather than the icy blast of the north wind signified by the storm cone motif discussed in my previous post.

The other eight colophons are more of a match. A few of those in Blast 1 had earlier been used on stationery and publications for the Rebel Art centre. One is used twice in Blast 1, while three from that volume are repeated in Blast 2, which also introduces four new designs. All are unsigned. But who drew them? Did Lewis dash them all off himself? Richard Cork (on what evidence?) states that they were “executed by Lewis and others”. (It has to be said that few of them show much resemblance to Lewis’s usual more attenuated style, though the first three shown below are broadly compatible with a similar small design by him used on the cover of the catalogue for the Dore Galleries Vorticist Exhibition of June 1915.) Did he invite a contribution from each of his collaborators? (Maybe not such a practicable process, in the circumstances.) Or are they all or mainly by another hand?

Helen Saunders, ‘Vorticist Composition in Black and White’
© Estate of Helen Saunders

In her write-up for the 1996 catalogue of the Helen Saunders exhibition (Ashmolean and Graves, Sheffield), Brigid Peppin asserts that all the colophons in Blast 2 “are clearly by different artists”, but attributes that on page 16 to the sadly eclipsed and highly under-rated Saunders, on the reasonable grounds of its similarity to some of her known pieces in which overlapping, irregular, trapezoid enclosures fold and unfold. To make the point, the catalogue itself uses as a colophon a similar drawing from the exhibition, listed as no. 10, “Vorticist Composition in Black and White”.

For that matter, it seems to me, none of the colophons in either volume are entirely incompatible with aspects of Saunders’ known work, with the possible exception of the exploding “Blast”. Certainly, those used on 1:125, 1:127, 2:10, 2:14 and 2:16 clearly show approaches that echo aspects of her other work, while they are far less of a match for Hamilton, Roberts, Etchells or Wadsworth.

1:8, 126; 2:82

1:118

1:125; 2:49

1:127; 2:69

2:10

2:14

2:16

2:74

I’d suggest that most (or maybe all) of these were very likely done by Saunders; in her role during the Blast era as unpaid amanuensis and general dogsbody for Lewis, it seems perfectly conceivable that she may have made this important but typically modest contribution. All of these eight small designs are worth leisured consideration. They are not hasty Vorticist doodles: each is in itself a satisfying composition, founded on a separate idea and entirely balanced within the laws of its own development.

Overall, Saunders’ Vorticist work is still easily neglected, and too often assumed to be “derivative”. It’s not easy to appreciate its worth when it is seen piecemeal, as it always is. A fuller view might do her more justice – perhaps a project for a future post.