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 2013

Four Vorticistic pieces

More of Helen Saunders

Design for a Book Jacket small

© Estate of Helen Saunders

My Helen Saunders gallery, which seems to get more hits than any other page these days, has been extended by the addition of images of the two fine Saunders pieces in the Victoria & Albert, thanks to the kindness of Saunders authority Brigid Peppin, who in the meantime has sorted out the confusion in the HS entries in the V&A online catalogue. I’ve also put in a reference, with links, to the dodgy Wadsworth oil in the Thyssen-Bornemisza collection, of which Brigid has made an excellent case for an attribution to Saunders. All down at the bottom end of the page. The more Saunders we see, the stronger her work appears in its totality. And how humane and life-affirming it seems too, compared for example to the colder, more cerebral Vorticism of Wadsworth.

Good to see a single Saunders from Chicago, Canon, currently in the MoMA’s Inventing Abstraction show, as on the exhibition website here. Though the gigantic “social networking” diagram produced for the show is a bit problematic, to say the least, given that it is restricted to artists selected for exhibition and to proven face-to-face contacts or direct correspondence – two pieces of filtering that rather distort the actual nature of “influence”. Wyndham Lewis, in particular, looks unfairly marginalised in the process. But that’s nothing unusual.

Herbert Read, Vorticist painter?

Browsing the pavement slab-sized catalogue for the RA’s 1987 British Art in the 20th Century exhibition, I was surprised to come across this, in an essay by Andrew Causey, on Herbert Read, critic, educator, be-knighted anarchist and retailer of modernisms:

“For a brief moment Read had been a Vorticist-influenced painter and an admirer of Lewis, and had declared an early allegiance to Nietzsche. He laid heavy stress … on Expressionism. For Read this was … a recurrent Northern trait …”

Nietzsche, Expressionism and Northernism, OK. And though their later relations appear to have been somewhat – er – rocky, it’s true that Read and Lewis were in cahoots from around 1917. But Read a “Vorticist-influenced painter”? Read’s “brief moment” as such must have been very brief, as I can’t find any sign of it. Or of Read as any kind of painter, come to that. But I’d be fascinated by any evidence to the contrary.

naked warriorsAmong other things contributed by Lewis to Read’s and Frank Rutter’s short-lived review Art and Letters, was a cover design for the Winter 1918-19 issue, shown by Walter Michel in his magnum opus on Lewis (Michel 260). In late 1918 Lewis agreed to do 8 or 10 small drawings for Read’s book of poems Naked Warriors, to be published by the Beaumont Press. But this didn’t happen, Lewis writing to Read that “people like [Cyril Beaumont] arouse all my worst passions.” Instead, he offered “a stamp or design such as Art and Letters has for its cover, I should be delighted to do it free of charge.”

In the event, Naked Warriors appeared in 1919 under the Art and Letters imprint, with the very same cover motif that Lewis had already provided to the review. Could the appearance of this rather fine design above Read’s name be the origin of the notion that he had once been a Vorticist painter? Or is there something else I’ve missed?

Amazingly, an Amazon search for Naked Warriors brings up the inscribed copy sent by Read to Lewis (no longer for sale). Blimey.

Arnold Auerbach, Vorticist sculptor?

auerbachIn his piece on modern British sculpture in the same RA catalogue, Richard Cork hailed Vorticist Head by Arnold Auerbach as “a belated homage to the movement,” bracketing its maker in with Epstein, Atkinson and Dobson. This piece (or one of its edition) had popped up the year before in a Fine Art Society revisionist survey of British sculpture between the wars, dated rather broadly as “c 1920 – 1930”. One is entitled to ask: Arnold who? No relation to painter Frank, Arnold Auerbach (1898-1979) turns out to have been a Liverpool born etcher, architectural sculptor and teacher, usually of naturalist or neo-classical inclination, who dallied for a while in the ‘twenties with a pseudo-cubist Deco style. This work is skilful, pleasing and very much of its period, but it isn’t Vorticist. At best, it is a folk memory of Vorticism, akin to, and contemporary with, the retro-Futurism of the Grosvenor School lino cuts of Claude Flight and others. Though these do suggest that somewhere, at another level to the avant-garde, there were postwar currents working in quite different directions to the neoclassical return to order. (Just how much of a informed, conscious absorption of Vorticism was there in the succeeding generations of British artists? Certainly in the case of Merlyn Evans, though that’s another story.) Vorticist Head is elsewhere called Mechanised Head; was there an opportunist tweaking of the title somewhere along the way?

The remarkable rediscovery of David Wilde

david wildeHere’s something you don’t see every day: the recent emergence of a considerable cache of paintings, many said to be influenced by Vorticism, by a previously unrecognised British painter whose earlier career was in erotic illustration, and who died in mysterious circumstances while preparing an exposé of secret societies. But such is the story of David Wilde (1913-74, or 1918-78 in some sources), born Norman Shacklock, as told in the 2011 monograph by Chris Kirwan, David Wilde: Manchester’s Hidden Artist:

” … it was possibly the artist and writer Wyndham Lewis who had an early influence on Wilde’s painting style … Vorticism is evident in some of Wilde’s landscapes, where geometric shapes lean into the centre of the picture … There is, in Wilde’s work, some of the alienation or mechanical dystopia usually associated with Lewis’ paintings and with his prophetic attack on the way modern life was evolving in the early part of the twentieth century.

Wilde’s work is also akin in some aspects to another member of the Vorticist movement, David Bomberg. There is a similar kaleidoscopic energy …”

To be honest, the influence, such as it is, is very much diffused, Wilde’s “Vorticism” generally consisting of multiple shards of flat, gaudy, primary colour, suggesting rock formations or architectural elements, that topple into the composition in a more or less disorganised way, but serve as prominent signifiers of modernism. Wilde canvases – tipped as an investment here – are said to have been selling strongly at various galleries and auction houses specialising in “Northern art”, and turn up even on Ebay.

It’s quite a story! But all most convincingly documented, along with Wilde’s poetry, his collages of Marilyn Monroe and so forth, in Mr Kirwan’s book  and on the galleries’ websites …

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La nostalgie continue …

At the risk of bogging down this blog in personal recollections (not the core intention), here are a couple more poster finds from the big clear-out.

medical aid vietnam
First, a geenuwine silk screened political poster from 1969. I designed and cut the stencil, and though I say it myself, it’s not bad. This was to publicise in Cambridge a sponsored walk put on by the London Medical Aid Committee for Vietnam, an organisation that we regarded as kosher, and not a Cold War front. Which does seem, with hindsight, to have been the case. The actual walk was not as much fun for me as it should have been. The distance was over twenty miles; I’d never walked as far in my life. And one of the Cambridge organisers, from a local sixth form, had recently informed me that she could only offer me, at best, a comradely affection. Her letter was written on bright orange tissue paper.

liberal ideology
And onwards to the ‘seventies. This letterpress student rant was my response to a Sheffield School of Art working party report that had managed to come up with nothing more focused for art education than fluffy aspirations to “freedom, diversity and independence.” The poster was, of course, made under the oblique influence of Art & Language, but it has the virtue of being understandable, which is more than you can say for their stuff. (Though, to be fair, most of my work at the time was obscurantist to an extreme, revolutionary clarity having been overwhelmed by the black tide of occultism.) One tutor said he liked the poster but felt it might be unfair to those obliged to spend time in real psychiatric hospitals. Which was a good point. Anyway, at least the typesetting is nifty – a vanished skill these days. Great fonts!

I ran into some people associated with Art & Language around this time at a National Union of Students art education conference. Nobody understood their motions, so I proposed the complete abolition of assessment in Art HE, which conference, gratifyingly, voted for, making it (theoretically) official NUS policy. The conference chair and then NUS President, none other than Labour axeman Charles Clarke, didn’t seem too bothered by this storming of the barricades; NUS top brass routinely ignored conference decisions. On my return I wrote a conference report for the art school newsletter entirely in rhyming couplets. This was duly typed up by our long suffering NUS office administrator, the amiable Angela Coe, who mentioned in passing that her son Sebastian was now doing quite well with his running. Funny how history picks out a few things for the mantelpiece, but kicks all the others under the settee …

‘Philosophy in the Boudoir’ and a pint of gin

Another find from an old folder – my original of the Englished version of the Internationale Situationniste poster of late 1967 by Raoul Vaneigem and André Bertrand. By “original” I mean offset-litho’d on two separate pieces of foolscap in 1968, though I have no idea how many generations of copies that might represent.

posterThe French original can be seen neatly archived here, just over half way down. It’s observable that some captions are rather freely translated, and the “extra” after “supermarket” at top right was removed for some reason. As for who did the English version, I’ve no idea, but it found its way speedily onto the front of International Times 26 of February 1968, dressed up in red and blue (visible at http://www.international-times.org.uk/ITarchive.htm – click on “1968” as the direct page link doesn’t seem to work). IT 27 contained a follow up letter on this signed by a pseudonymous “Random Banana”, who may or may not have been the translator.

I see that Guy Debord’s archives are now officially a French “national treasure”, and to be the focus of a massive exhibition at the Bibliothèque nationale this spring. I ebayed off some situationist ephemera myself a while back. The most eager purchasers turned out to be a collector of rock T-shirts and a radio DJ. Under post-modernism we are all now pro-situ’s, and the internet is littered with situationist graphics – mostly, Lord help us, on sites hosted by design companies. (Surely the deadly ideology of “design” should be top of the bonfire list for today’s cultural revolutionaries?) Despite this, only isolated panels of this poster pop up on Google, so it seemed like a public service to post it whole.

The original has been described as a détournement of a comic strip, but it’s not. Bertrand’s artwork looks as if it was assembled from tracings of magazine photos. The offsetting of outline against solid black lends it a pleasing style, so that the whole thing has now assumed huge retro-Pop appeal. Very commodity, in fact.

However uncomfortable I may feel these days with some of the sentiments expressed, I still admire their absolute intransigence. But the subjectivist, survivalist, almost mystical direction of Vaneigem’s thought of that era has long since been recuperated by the marketeers of “free choice”. The refusal to pay may save a few bob but beyond that it doesn’t get us very far. Freedom from choice, as Devo pointed out, is what we want.

A quick shot at Minimalism

I know we’re all Minimalists nowadays (at least in terms of interior design). But I’ve never quite learned to love it. I think Maximalism might be more my thing.

While black-bagging heaps of unworthy old artwork today, I came across this –

carl

– which I must have drawn (for no particular reason) about thirty five years ago, following the Carl André bricks sculpture controversy at the Tate. (For the Tate bricks, titled Equivalent VIII, see here.) The drawing is a homage to George Herriman’s magisterial comic strip Krazy Kat. The Kat has become Carl André (Krazy Karl? – not a bad likeness, actually), and is on the receiving end of a brick “dat will minimalize ya”, the brick being the invariable weapon of choice of Ignatz Mouse. (Those who know the strip will recall that Krazy always interprets these assaults, mistakenly, as tokens of love.)

As this little drawing is rather of its moment, I couldn’t quite bear to throw it away, so here it is.

Turfing through tatty folders of forgotten stuff I also found quite a few pieces of writing, such as:

  • An Erich Von Daniken piss-take titled “Was God a Submarine? An important message for mankind from the Master Celesteron,” which claims (among other things) that Romulus and Remus were adopted by a mobile drinks dispenser.
  • An early ‘seventies text describing a revival of dandyism and swordsmanship among urban delinquents (“I danced in a mirror of arcades. I dreamt I fought myself in a duel”) – a clear anticipation of Adam Ant and the New Romantics, nearly a decade before, I’d say.
  • A fictitious interview with David Frost about the psychology of car crashes (a bit J G Ballard, this one).
  • An impossibly lengthy synopsis of an opera (as given out by a broadcaster, shortly before the performance), which drifts into a paranoid religious rant.

And much more similar. No wonder I never got anything done. None of it publishable, or even good enough to be published, I dare say. What shall I do with it all? Shove it back in the folder and come back to it in another thirty five years, probably. Though by then I’ll be 98 years old …

Northern decollage

From a black and white print made from a lost colour slide, Leeds, 1971

A Big Idea that didn’t quite wash: the Dialectical Experience of Robert Simpson

One shouldn’t underestimate the power of a Big Idea. Nor overestimate it, for that matter.

Big Ideas seemed pretty powerful in late ‘sixties Cambridge. The University had always patted them on the head, but now, in the rather feverish political atmosphere of the times, they had swollen mightily, were biffing above their weight and bidding fair to revolutionise the world, as we student activists dared to hope. Or if not the world, at least academia.

photo1Few can have had more faith in the power of a Big Idea than Robert Simpson, a first year architecture student one corridor below me. Quite why Robert had chosen architecture I never understood, as he was so rapidly disillusioned by the technical emphases of the discipline that he wilfully hurled away any chances of passing his first year. But no matter if architects were unfit to build a new world, for meanwhile Robert had discovered Dialectical Experience.

leafletI don’t think I have ever seen anyone so transformed by a revelation at a purely intellectual level. In fact, Robert became, for a brief while, fanatically evangelistic. Typing up his thoughts, he had them Gestetnered onto sides of quarto; a few sympathetic souls, myself included, were press ganged into shoving these leaflets under every door in the college.

As it happens, I still have a yellowing copy (probably the last surviving), which I transcribe here:

LIFE HAS A MEANINGLESS PURPOSE AND A PURPOSELESS MEANING.

Logic is total, indivisible and real. There are either things or there are not things. There are no half-things. A thing either is what it is or what it is not. If it is what it is not, it is not. What is exists, what is not, does not exist.

Dialectical logic is logic orientated by the “unity of all things,” and as such has no premises, nor can the experience be intellectualized or known. It denies critism[sic] and can only be accepted. There is no dialectical theory, all dialectical statements are self-evident truths, and as such are balanced procreating systems.

Logic is real, thus it can be used instrumentally by the dialectical experience; and logic is energised by thought; and thought is generated by the need to survive.

Polemical logic is logic orientated by a dual concept of the universe, in which man defines things through this conceptualization. He conceptualizes by the differentiation and the polarization of entities. The type-form is conceived as a standard against which all experiences are classified. The type-form is a fabrication. As polemics can therefore only describe things in terms of what they are not, or in terms of an unreal, conceptualized standard, it can never answer a question demanding to know what a thing is and/or why a thing is. So, to “answer” those questions and prevent paralysis of thought and, therefore, total self-destruction, polemical logic polarizes man and the universe in order to have individual authority in a controlling ego (“I think, therefore, I am.”)

The dialectical experience sees that this identification separates an inseparable and, therefore, it cannot be real. So, the ego (societal and individual) cannot exist. Only the single entity exists; thus man is the universe (“I am, therefore, I am.”)

The classifier cannot classify himself!
The instrument cannot be instrumental upon itself!
What am I and why am I? These questions compel the ego to destroy itself and, so, liberate the “mind-body” from freedom!

“Life is not in the getting; life is in the doing” ………

think ………..

Put like that, one can hardly disagree. On the other hand, once one has thunk, it’s not entirely clear what happens next. But Robert was gleeful. The leafleting, he explained, was to be done at the dead of night. That way, nothing could pre-empt the collective revelation to be enjoyed by pyjama’d breakfasters poring over their discovery. All we had to do was to sit back and wait for the popping sound of hundreds of polemically orientated egos imploding across lawn and quadrangle. He was, I think, quite serious and sincere in his belief that the college would never be the same again.

I know what you’re thinking, so let me say that, to my knowledge, no type of hallucinogen or similar had ever passed Robert’s lips. Our dialectician was stone cold straight. But who or what had led him to this point? Perhaps not Hegel; the term “synthesis” appears nowhere here, and Robert’s conception of the dialectical seems particularly static. But I’m reminded by one who was there at the time that he had been reading Norman O Brown. And in its urge to totalise, this text is very close to the Zen-ish spirit of Brown’s monism.

Needless to say, the apocalypse failed to happen, and the nation’s future great and good remained oddly untouched by their brush with the philosopher’s stone. (Including, across the corridor to me, a young Rowan Williams. Had the future Archbishop of Canterbury been attracted by Robert’s leaflet towards a Brownian, more Dionysian, form of Christianity, might the path of the Anglican Communion have proved a little less orthodox?)

Undaunted, Robert himself moved on towards a more orthodox faith, quickly developing an equal, if not greater, enthusiasm for certain French Catholic philosopher-theologians. He rather lost us at this point, so I can’t remember which, though I suppose it could have been Jesuit Thomists such as Maréchal or Rousselot, whose Platonism might have appealed to him. At about this time he also discovered plastic toy dinosaurs, which were scattered in quantities over his furniture. “Look at them!” he would say, picking them up and making them eat each other. “Aren’t they fantastic?” He was certainly liable to overwhelming enthusiasms, and you can’t help but admire that.

I think that for a while, after he crashed out of his first year, he stayed in the area, somewhere out along the Ely road. He acquired a vehicle, possibly a Land-Rover, which he drove dangerously. And then he was gone. I recall a letter from Israel, maybe from a kibbutz. And after that? Wherever he is, I hope he’ s still tilting at windmills.

For many years I clung stubbornly to a huge architectural drawing from his course work that he was throwing out and which I begged from him. The brief had been on bathroom design, and the drawing showed a super-smooth modernist bathroom suite, across which in huge but perfect capitals he had written “TO WASH OR NOT TO WASH? THAT IS THE QUESTION”. This protest piece certainly contributed to his exit. Unfortunately, it seems to have perished in one of my many house moves.

photo2But I still have a photo booth image of Robert, probably ripped from his NAS card and now yellowed by old sellotape . Why do I have it? No idea. Though his hair grew longer with studenthood, here it is still grammar school neat. But the eyes peer out from the geeky glasses as if already they perceive the fabrication of the type-form, as if they foresee the liberation of the mind-body.

One shouldn’t underestimate the power of a Big Idea. If not power to change the world, then certainly power to re-route radically one’ s passage through life.