Richard Warren

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

Monthly Archives: February 2013

Kurt thoughts: Britters in Schwitain

From notes made on my way round the Schwitters in Britain show at Tate Britain:

Constant tensions between colour and texture, forms and references.

Colour – So much brown! But the landscapes and portraits too, even in the skin tones, appear predominantly brown. Seems regressive – the dull cubist palette of Picasso & Braque. But his colour cheers up a bit once he is released from the internment camp!

Forms – Constructivist? How much chance? What laws do his compositions obey? Any?

References (found material) – Social & personal history. He claimed to sit light to the original significances of found material and of elements of text. But it clearly wasn’t so. (An abundance of bus tickets indicates a prevalence of buses. In London, judging by the collages, he ate an awful lot of Liquorice Allsorts. He does not appear to have eaten Kendal Mint Cake during the Lake District period.)

Untitled, 1942

Untitled, 1942 (Note Liquorice Allsorts)

[Thought: a philatelist notices an extremely rare stamp glued into a Schwitters collage … Thought: British Counter-intelligence analyses his British collages, suspecting them to be coded messages.]

In the collages the upside-down elements (writing, images) are sometimes quite dominant. Did Schwitters work both/all ways up until the final resolution?

His process? Tension between congruences and incongruences. Exercises in daring. Relentless oddness. Defies Ben Nicholson’s tastefulness. Nicholson called Schwitters “an ass and a bore”. (Nicholson could be, in Sven Berlin’s words, “a cold, spiteful little sod”.)

The later paintings and small sculptures move towards a more lyrical, clean, hard edged colourfulness, lose their grubbiness, even take on a strange hint of style. But this threat of taste is always carefully recuperated by some element or small fragment of anti-taste. Allure, then deflection. A sideways step.

Lovely Portrait, 1942

Schwitters, ‘Lovely Portrait,’ 1942

Schwitters, portrait of george Johnston, 1946

Schwitters, portrait of George Johnston, 1946

Asger Jorn, 'The avant-garde doesn't give up painting,' 1962

Asger Jorn, ‘The avant-garde doesn’t give up painting,’ 1962

In Untitled (Lovely Portrait), 1942, Schwitters paints over an existing Victorian portrait, leaving only the face from the original. See Asger Jorn’s interventions (“defigurations”). But unlike Jorn, Schwitters did not disrespect the original, given that he was a conventional portraitist himself. See also Joyce Cary’s Gully Jimson (The Horse’s Mouth) buying an old Rembrandt to paint over in place of a new canvas. Also, Duchamp’s “anti-readymade” notion of using a Rembrandt as an ironing board – though that works only as an idea, not as an object. The portrait painted over by Schwitters as an anti-readymade?

[Thought: in 1943 in London Schwitters was in contact with Jankel Adler. Adler was in close contact with Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde. They could have seen Schwitters’s work on show alongside Adler’s in 1944. Could Schwitters have met the Two Roberts? If so, they may hardly have understood each other.]

Despite the two new works in this show (elaborate, self-indulgent, ignorable) commissioned to honour the “Lake District legacy” of Schwitters, there is no such legacy. One wet Lakeland weekend some years ago, I failed to find any trace of his time in Ambleside. (Though recently the Armitt Collection has started to pull things together.)

Before I viewed this show, I thought that I understood Schwitters’s work. Now I find that I don’t. But I like it all the more for that.

The curse of curation

Found a last minute in which to call in on Revealed: Government Art Collection, finishing this weekend at the Gas Hall at Birmingham, but no doubt soon to visit a city near you with a flourish of tinny trumpets.

Core of the show is Cornelia Parker’s “playful” (read: lazy) curation of a big bunch of random pieces plucked from offices and consulates, arranged by her according to their predominant colours – a post-modern dabble which was no less meaningless at its previous outing at the Whitechapel. In his over-lengthy but timely Retromania, Simon Reynolds fastens perceptively on the dangers of “curation” in the modern music scene – music as a vast, futureless museum, with nothing left but tributes and mash-ups. Same here. Visual artists (sorry: creative agents) will soon all be custodians and samplers of heritage, with nothing to say for themselves.

The Parker mash-up has been augmented for this show by other guest curatorships, which at least serve to amplify the dangers of letting Peter Mandelson and Nick Clegg in on the act. Simon Schama’s choices are intelligent but dully historiographical, as you’d expect of a historian.

lowry coronation
I found the gallery full of local taxpayers, curious to see what return their government had got for their dosh down the years. Answer – not a lot, apparently. When officialdom gets its pale hands on purchases and commissions, discernment and quality seem to shrivel. The great big embassy panels by John Piper, for example, must be among his worst work ever. Star of the show – at least for many of the taxpayers – has to be L S Lowry’s risible little painting of the 1953 Coronation procession (above). The wall blurb frankly admits that national treasure Lowry, commissioned at vast expense to crank out a matchstick queen and coach, didn’t get to his seat on time and missed the whole thing, but came back next day to sketch the empty street. He simply invented the rest, and it shows; the result resembles perfectly a piece of mid 20th century school art as cultivated by an art teacher from the Marion Richardson “self-expression” tendency – on-no-account-teach-the-kids-anything-but-let-them-make-it-up. Which, of course, is pretty much where Lowry was coming from and what all his work looks like.

rock drillo'donoghue

A considerable relief to trot round the corner to the main Birmingham Gallery to say hello to the reconstruction of Epstein’s Rock Drill, in the pride of place it deserves. Birmingham now also has Studies for a Crucifixion, a composite carborundum print by Hughie O’Donoghue. Much of his work seems, well, rather watery, but this is big and tough, with blacks as intense as accumulated coal dust. A bit more like it …

Cold War irony

Visiting the National Cold War Exhibition at the RAF Museum at Cosford today, I was delighted to discover that the customer facilities have been playfully Sovietised: a gigantic statue of Lenin towers above the souvenir shop, thrusting forward a carrier bag, while – even better – the snack bar has been made over as a mock-up of Checkpoint Charlie, complete with decorative barbed wire and floodlights.

Lenin at the souvenir shop
Lenin at the souvenir shop

Muffins and barbed wire
Muffins and barbed wire

Here, to a backdrop of Russian posters, visitors may scoff their muffins at tables set between striped wooden barriers. In fact, the whole thing forcibly reminded me of an Edward Kienholz installation – specifically, Portable War Memorial of 1968 (which I remember vividly from the extraordinary Kienholz show at the ICA in 1971), right down to the Coke machine. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that it was inspired by it. Though this is better, as you can actually buy real Coke.

Kienholz, 'Portable War memorial', 1968

Kienholz, ‘Portable War memorial’, 1968

Excellent. The only slight disappointment was that the toilets, which I then visited expectantly, seem to have escaped the brush of communist chic.

I recommend the Exhibition, too. More military aircraft than you could possibly absorb, but quite nicely contextualised with little displays and video presentations on Mutually Assured Destruction,  the Cuba Missile Crisis, etc. In the latter, kids ran around carefree while those of us old enough to remember looked on more soberly.

Cedra Osborne’s sweet princes, Colquhoun and MacBryde

Cedra O croppedMy last post introduced the recollections of Cedra Osborne, by way of a brief moment involving Burns Singer, Robert MacBryde, a piano and the threat of fisticuffs.

A more generous selection from her very readable 1993 article on the Two Roberts, painters Colquhoun and MacBryde, is now available here, on my page devoted to them. This seems to be a bit of a neglected source, so I hope any Roberts-followers out there may find it of interest. I’ve scrounged together a little bit of biography on Cedra herself as well, including her time with Pietro Annigoni and her 1997 novel about the life of Jesus.

(For now, this is all at the top of the Roberts page, which I intend to expand and reorganise as and when.)

Cedra Osborne, the Roberts and Burns Singer

Jimmy Burns Singer puts on a poetic stare for the publisher's mugshot for 'Living Silver', 1958.

Jimmy Burns Singer puts on a poetic stare for the publisher’s mugshot for ‘Living Silver’, 1958.

A source on the Two Roberts, painters Colquhoun and MacBryde, apparently not used by Roger Bristow in his 2010 biography of the dynamic duo, is the reminiscence by Cedra Osborne (later Cedra Castellain) published in the April/May 1993 London Magazine. (Though Bristow does cite personal conversations with her.) Selected excerpts (along with bits about them by Anthony Cronin and Julian Maclaren-Ross) will appear on the Colquhoun and MacBryde page here in due course, but meanwhile here is a moment when poet Jimmy Burns Singer (who has two pages on this site) comes very close to planting one on MacBryde:

Sometimes during 1955 [the Roberts] lived in a room above my own [in Chalk Farm], where Colquhoun did some drawings. They brought people with bottles back from Soho, and there were parties in my room, which had the piano. James ‘Burns’ Singer, a poet, brought his agreeable black wife to one of them. She was a child-analyst who, at a previous party, had offered to analyze Colquhoun, saying she was sure she could straighten him out. He was very polite about it. MacBryde used to play the piano for us. His limited repertoire unfortunately included ‘Way Down upon the Swanee River’. When he reached it, Jimmy leapt to his feet, crying: ‘I’d have you know my wife is black!’ He made for the piano, but was overcome by weight of numbers. MacBryde retired into the large cupboard (once a larder) off my room, and was heard sobbing. ‘Robert!’ shouted Colquhoun, ‘stop snivelling and come out of there.’ ‘Och, Robert’ came reproachfully from behind the door, ‘you know I like a good cry.’

Singer knew the Roberts well and counted them as friends, so his outrage must have been heartfelt. His later contributions to the TLS show that he became a forceful advocate for black literature and the civil rights movement. Marie Singer’s analysis of Colquhoun would have been worth a listen-in, had he taken up the offer. I assume that “straighten” is not used here in any homophobic sense.

osborne and roberts

Cedra Osborne and the Roberts with Barker children at Tilty Mill

Cedra Osborne, who died in 2006, is an interesting figure in her own right; she also appears in the photo here of the Roberts, George Barker and W S Graham at Tilty Mill – on the right, next to Paul Potts. She took a step up from bohemia in 1955 on becoming secretary to posh portrait painter Pietro Annigoni, but for a while was a bit of a poet herself, judging by the following piece by her from Nimbus 2, Spring 1952 – an early issue of this slim review with contributions by others of the Barker circle, including Cashenden (Betty) Cass.

Ace of Spades

Esther saw me lying dead
In a bitter cold and windy place,
With greasy cobbles underhead
And a knife stuck in my face.

I know the place, a fishing town
Once prosperous but now decayed,
With a small river bringing down
The sewage near the esplanade.

The breakwater courageously
Still stands against the battering shock
Of monstrous seas, and tenderly
Cradles the wrecks with arms of rock.

And there on the deserted quay
At dead of night I deadly lie,
My hair spread out in disarray
And a short knife in my right eye.

What dreadful passions here ran rife!
Who snared me in this fearful skein?
Oh whose the hand that drove the knife?
Oh Esther, read the cards again.

nimbusI like this.  It’s not the deepest poetry ever written, but it has a macabre, balladey smack to it that reminds me of Charles Causley’s “Dying Gunner”: “Oh mother my mouth is full of stars / As cartridges in the tray …”  True, the first verse is the strongest, but even so the poem seems well worth rescuing here. I haven’t come across any other published poems by Cedra Osborne.

Tango with cows

petit journal 2Aha! Always gratifying when a nice synchronicity pops up. My last post admired the one-off proto-modernist mag Le Petit Journal des Refusées,  produced by the humourist Gelett Burgess in 1896 in San Francisco on irregularly shaped pages of wallpaper.

Grubbing about on the net for something else entirely, I now discover these –  Tango s Korovami (Tango with Cows) and Nagoy Sredi Odyetikh (Naked among the Clad), produced by Vasily Kamensky, with the Burliuk Brothers and Andrei Kravstov respectively, in 1914 in Moscow on irregularly shaped pages of wallpaper. (Excellent titles, both!)

tango with cowsnaked among the cladTango with Cows ? It’s remarkable that Burgess was best known for his nonsense poem “The Purple Cow”. Scarcely credible that Kamensky would have had sight of Le Petit Journal, so one is obliged to attribute all this joyful similarity to something floating telepathically in the vital creative flux of the era.

Cubo-futurist ferro-concrete poetry, anyone?

More herehere and elsewhere …

Le Petit Journal des Refusées

cubist smallNewspaper cartoonists in the nineteen-teens had a great time with Cubism: what on earth would those crazy modern artists get up to next? But we all know that Cubism emerged from Picasso’s Demoiselles of 1907; so what’s this drawing all about – in 1896? Come to that, what’s the whole magazine about?

19th century Yankee humour can be an acquired taste, but one worth acquiring, as anyone will know who’s ever discovered Artemus Ward. But this is something else – Le Petit Journal des Refusées, written, illustrated and published in San Francisco by “James Marrion”, a pen name of humourist Gelett Burgess, and a spin-off from his more successful – and more orthodox – The Lark. In 1894 Burgess had been dismissed from his post at the University of California at Berkeley for his part in the vandalistic demolition of a temperance fountain. In addition, he is credited with the invention of the term “blurb”.

cover smallLe Petit Journal, which proclaimed itself a quarterly, lasted for exactly one issue. It was printed on leftover wallpaper, on pages cut to a trapezium, and apparently with slightly different contents in different copies. Some pages are typeset in mixed fonts, or with letters randomly inverted.

The mock-decadent cover promises contributions on Art, Literature, Counterpoint, Vulgar Fractions, Dress Reform and Yachting, but the contents, as the title suggests, all claim to be works by “feminine authoresses” (with names such as Anne Southampton Bliss, Alice Rainbird and Howardine de Pel) that have been “ruthlessly rejected by less large-hearted and appreciative editors” of such well known periodicals (real or imaginary) as the War Cry, the Butcher’s Advocate and the American Journal of Insanity. Though to say that the “contributions” are parodies of literary fashions would be something short of the mark. Burgess mocks some aspects of the feminist agenda, though not without affection, and apparently not from a reactionary standpoint.tongues small

The drawings that frame the pages, often overpowering the texts, are extraordinary; some belong more in the San Francisco of 1967 that that of 1896. The “Cubist” page I’ve already noted, but this heavy, angular black line that zig zags around a rather incompatible frieze of tramping feet belongs to no style then current, and seems to anticipate Vorticism.

feet smallThe overall effect is of a proto-Dada, and it’s fascinating to see how humour, as a genre, is stretched here into a form of avant-gardism, albeit an avant-gardism that does not know itself to be such. Burgess died in 1951; his Wiki page indicates he was still writing in the late ‘thirties, but I rather think he hit his peak with Le Petit Journal. Three variant copies are available online in the splendid and invaluable Modernist Journals Project hosted by Brown University and the University of Tulsa. Well worth a browse.