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: April 2013

Pukka dreams: Christopher Wood & Cedric Morris

Here’s a recent impulse buy I don’t regret: Cedric Morris & Christopher Wood. A Forgotten Friendship, by Nathaniel Hepburn, published last year to accompany a show of the two that tours till this June.

Wood by Wood

Wood by Wood

I hadn’t really noticed the connection between Christopher Wood (self-taught painter and opium smoker, who threw himself under an incoming train at Salisbury railway station in 1930) and Cedric Morris (self-taught painter and Bright Young Baronet, who, with his lifelong partner Arthur Lett-Haines, went on to found the East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing, only to have it burned down in 1939 by the young Lucian Freud). But when you set their work side by side, as in these pages, the likeness becomes obvious.

And instructive. Both men espoused a fashionable naivety of style, and at first glance the similarities shout. Yet on closer inspection we may feel that Morris can’t have had to work too hard at becoming a naïf, being basically a rich boy who couldn’t draw too well to begin with – a sort of upper class Outsider. But Wood had to unlearn earlier sophistications, and it’s Wood who comes out on top here. Morris’s world is the real world minus some element of the real that he never quite mastered; Wood’s world is the real world but somehow wonderfully reordered and recreated.

Morris by Morris

Morris by Morris

Wyndham Lewis knew Kit Wood well, remembering him as “a sixfooter who … camped in my garden”, and estimating him as “the only ‘post-war’ English painter of outstanding merit.” In my piece on Lewis’s The Apes of God, in the Wyndham Lewis Annual for 2008, I argue for Wood as the inspiration for that novel’s naïf “genius” Dan Boleyn. But unlike Boleyn, as Lewis recognised, Wood’s “romantic nature was able to organize itself sufficiently to get something out of paint. His pictures have imaginative beauty which is as easy as a reverie and it does not put you under duress like a nightmare. It is the gentle dream of a dairymaid. But it is a pukka dream.”

Lewis had encountered Morris. Did he find Morris’s dream pukka? I’m not sure.

Nathaniel Hepburn has researched the doings of Wood and Morris’s artistic and social set in painstaking detail, and his book is a welcome addition to the Wood corpus – lavishly illustrated and already available online for considerably less than the headline price. Hepburn is curator of Mascalls Gallery, a proper public gallery housed at a Kent comprehensive. In these times of cultural austerity, as Gove batters the breath out of the curriculum with his nasty little Ebacc, just how good is that?

Speaking of schools, I’m struck by the strong parallels between the cult of the naïve, the minimal tuition at the Paris “academies” frequented by Wood and Morris, the laissez-faire regime of Morris and Lett-Haines’s East Anglian School, and the strictly hands-off approach to art education pioneered at Dudley in the ‘twenties by Marion Richardson (with the approval of Roger Fry). Richardson aimed to preserve adolescent direct expressiveness at the cost of any kind of instruction, and hers became the dominant model of school art well into the ‘sixties, eventually being superseded in many schools only by a belated sub-Bauhaus approach. My grammar school Art master would sooner have shot himself than have been caught actually teaching me anything, but that’s maybe a topic for another time …

Letting Go of Uncertainty: Damien Hirst at Walsall

A trip to Walsall yesterday for a running repair to my hearing aids gave an opportunity to drop in at the New Art Gallery (after a jumbo hot dog from the Mr Sizzle van outside – “Lunch for £1”) to take a look at Damien Hirst’s year long intervention in the Garman Ryan collection. (Only six months to go …)

Sacred Heart

Sacred Heart

Young Damien has seriously knuckled under to the current vogue for “curation”, and is left with little to do but arrange readymades – anatomical models, sea shells – on shelves. He has become essentially a collector of pills, butterflies and other curiosities, which has always been his real vocation, I suppose. His ideal job would probably be in a small museum, except that museums no longer consist of shelves of objects or cases of stuffed animals, having been stripped down to big graphics and interactive doodahs. The museum that Hirst, Cornelia Parker and others yearn to re-create is a childhood memory of a museum – a museum of museums.

Wounds of Christ

Wounds of Christ

At the same time, Hirst seems completely unable to let go of the Christian iconography that he constantly references, whether in his New Religion series (especially the superbly beautiful The Sacred Heart of Jesus and the surprisingly reverential The Wounds of Christ) or in his formaldehyded lost sheep or Lamb of God (Away from the Flock). The former are not at Walsall, but the sheep, looking a little off colour, is there to greet the visitor. Hirst may imagine that he’s critiquing, kitsching or pastiching Christianity in a naughty boy way, but we know better. Whatever his intentions, such images don’t debase the Christian narrative – they revive and inculturate it. I’ll give it ten years maximum for Sir Damien OBE to convert into a practising Roman Catholic.

Meanwhile, upstairs, a dozen Walsall College students, under the banner of “Let Go of Certainty,” have been roped in to “curate” a roomful of vaguely Hirst-themed pieces about life, death, er, the universe and stuff, drawn from the permanent collection. They’ve chosen quite well, but good grief, what’s this “Certainty” they want us to let go of? We’ve all lived with paradox and multi-POV ambiguity for so long now that no one can remember what certainty was. I’m afraid they’re well behind the curve here. What we want today is freedom from Uncertainty.

Enough of “convergences”, of art that “explores”, “is concerned with” or “makes reference to”. Enough squishy flux. Enough indifference. Enough cheap grace. Enough of this post-modern timelessness that is merely the commodification of Eternity.

We’re in need of the hardness of ice, of dogma, of direct touch: Pain, Holy Defiance in the face of tragic extra-personal reality, Mystery, Sacrament, Redemption, the Terrible Beauty of Resurrection, the Hope of Anarchy. And other things that seem to demand Capital Letters.

Speaking of capital letters, the Walsall Gallery is STILL in thrall to the parasitic resident interventions of “Bob and Roberta Smith” (Patrick Brill) that clutter the Garman Ryan rooms. His most recent reflection on the Epstein Archive is an insulting and slatternly “sculpture” of Epstein’s son, the painter Theodore Garman, whacked together in five minutes out of offcuts of firewood, and resembling neither Theo Garman nor anything that might qualify as sculpture. When Jacob Epstein confronts Mr Brill in the afterlife, he will probably want to kick his bottom for this.

The Daughters of Albion weep

How suffocating the weight of their ceremonial, of gold braid, of power, of money.

How revealing of their values, the identities of the select: Sir Mark, Fergie, Clarkson, Wogan, Joan Collins, Jeffrey Archer.

How right they are to mourn their Joan of Arc, who managed their counter-revolution.

How easily it drops away, the thin pretence of one nation. How shameful today to be British.

Among a baffled Broad Left audience at Sheffield University in the mid ‘seventies, I listened as Keith Joseph of the Centre for Policy Studies, Thatcher’s John the Baptist, expounded her gospel of privatisation and monetarism – a speech he made 150 times in his tour of colleges and universities. He became intensely emotional as he dwelt on the virtues of entrepreneurship:

“I say ‘entrepreneur’,” he explained, “as there is no other term that quite conveys what it means to take risks to make money.”

“How about ‘criminal’?” I heckled, feeling quite pleased with myself.

He was not phased for a moment. The writing was on the wall.

Proem to nothing: the poetry of Arthur Llewellyn Basham

The Sunday Referee may not be Britain’s best remembered weekly, but for a while in the ‘thirties it ran a “Poet’s Corner” hosted by the eccentrically ‘nineties figure of Victor Neuberg, perhaps himself best remembered as an early magickal collaborator with Aleister Crowley. Six monthly the Referee sponsored a first collection. First winner was Pamela Hansford Johnson, girlfriend of Dylan Thomas, later a novelist and academic and to marry C P Snow. The second recipient was young Dylan himself, his 18 Poems (Parton Press) quickly a sell-out, followed in 1935 by Proem (Unicorn Press) by Arthur Llewellyn Basham. Arthur who?

BashamBasham, born in 1914, was a talented young man – an accomplished writer and pianist who later had a notable career as an orientalist, best remembered for his encyclopaedic The Wonder That Was India of 1954. He died in 1986. His brief ‘thirties flaring of poetic fame was soon extinguished; he must have decided that poetry was not his career choice. But his poems are not forgettable scrap; a few are well worth picking out of history’s dustbin for a bit of a brush down.

Neuberg’s verbally ornate introduction to Proem explains next to nothing: “unlimited versatility … marvellously extensive … epicurean tongue … has lived vitally” etc. But he does claim Basham as a modernist of sorts: “modern without eccentricity … wholly a son of his century.” Though Neuberg also implies an agricultural focus, referencing Basham’s “great love … for the soil and peasantry of his adopted Suffolk” and “new … panegyrics to old furrows”, in fact hardly any of the poems touch on soil or peasantry. A slightly limp frontispiece portrait shows Basham as a beardless and sensitive youth.

Despite Neuberg’s judgement, Proem is not whole heartedly twentieth century. There are Yeatsian and moralistic throwbacks; “Symbol”, the poem that actually won Basham the Referee Book Prize, is indeed cloyingly and annoyingly symbolist, with its wingclipped horses, dim forms rising and stars glancing in fallen oceans – all without redeeming irony. But when the healthy influence of Auden asserts itself, Basham lurches into the twentieth century with a vengeance, producing some vigorous urban writing that is not entirely derivative and that surely deserves a small corner in any ‘thirties canon.

Some of his early-Audenisms are not helpful; syntax can be baffling, and some obscurities simply don’t stand up. Few pieces are entirely right. But try the opening stanza of “Vestiges of a Pleasant Evening” (which later dips into moralising over a copulating couple):

Notice the spider hurrying,
the cigarette carton in the levelled grass.
Here as it stirs intently in the dust
conceive diminuendo of an evening,
the fatuous stars.

The Audenesque injunctives (“Notice, conceive”); the anti-romantic pairing of “fatuous stars”; the key image of the discarded cigarette packet: all these signify the modern, loudly and effectively.

Or take the heavy materialism of the rather fine first section of “The Garage”:

As yellow as the metal plates
placarding red-encircled walls,
proclaiming tyres or gasoline,
light from the silver arc-lamp falls,
where corrugated iron and tin
with inscribed globes, in a grey dusk,
pump the new year’s heart blood in
to metal arteries, that thud
and spread narcotic musk.

Yellow, red, silver, grey, iron, tin, metal, tyres, gasoline, lamp, thud, spread – all excitingly celebratory and physical, before, once again, the poem tail-ends in symbolising and judgement.

In “Holiday”, the nice young middle class poet explores, to his own cost, his ambivalent and uneasy relations with proletarian youth along a promenade “strewn with woodbine ends”. (Basham has a thing about “gaudy seaside towns”.) The poem is marginally spoiled by a friendly but unpleasant use of the term “Jewboy”, but it touches some interesting nerves along the way:

I say: “But Paolo and Francesca
vortexed in such a crowd as this.
I am one who has known Hell,
so tell me, Lever, what there is to tell
of between last week and to-morrow, when you sit
for the final time on the beach at night, or lie
unsleeping in lodgings.”

A face, pitted like corroded rock,
opens on Avernus, grey with smoke and slime:
“You’re talking poppycock!”
She winks an eye gleaming like molten lead:
“We’ve had a gorgeous time” she confesses as they pass.

 “Deep Sea” gives a surprisingly tough, sailor’s view of Manila, like an Edward Burra painting of a dockside dive:

… gramophones strike up as business starts.
Behind the hills the lightning threads and stitches.
The Filipino girls are warm as hell,
but mind your step, they’re vicious little tarts –
knife you as soon as look at you, the bitches.

“Meditation in the Park”, an extended panorama of Audenesque modern life, is perhaps Basham’s best piece in his Modern mode. It is not totally even, but many passages carry real impact:

Chimneys and masts swagger below the park.
Half-hearted statements
about the nation’s prosperous peak
flap from the factory flags.
Above, the reservoir broods among allotments
mating a single spire to bleed the sky …

… These are the flustered, the industrious weeks
when boarding house keepers burnish their apartments,
lay in new store of linen.
The spring winds, north this year, unload their soot
on cinemas and beaches of the south,
and worry matrons through their sinister nights,
distraught with sirens, and clatter of ribald bells.

The poem rounds off with an incantatory call to action, not overtly party-faithful as in Auden’s “Brothers, who when the sirens roar”, but comparably anti-capitalist and apocalyptic:

You young men on corners, salt-rusted sailors,
ribald in dockside bars,
time to quit your pintpots, your dog-eared cards.
Purseproud forces, essentials of corruption,
all the gloved powers are marshalling their jailers;
the black ensign darkens their yards …

… Girls cycling from factories, riveting mechanics,
an hour forget the power-loom, drop the mask and welder.
Remember the gas-drill, the artificial panics.
Imagine the air turn sour.

The times are in a hurry, you must do more than worry
if you want to save your skins and your houses.
Get going with that city and don’t waste time on pity,
come to grips with the critical hour.

This is good stuff, and Basham’s vision of the just city – “one candid in the sun … clean as a canine tooth” – may even anticipate that of Auden.

One Audenesque element that I have touched on already in my post on Wargaming with WHA is the uncanny anticipation of civil war or invasion:

They are surveying the coast already, sounding the defences,
the strategic importance of the cinema;
plan sandbags on the promenade,
a bombproof shelter under Woolworth’s.

“The strategic importance of the cinema”: with our hindsight neatly boxed in decades, we take such Dad’s Army touches for granted. But given that this was almost certainly written in 1934 or earlier, while the Spanish Civil War started in 1936, and the Japanese invaded China the following year, what precisely generated this fear of invasion, this undercurrent of prophetic imagery of gas drills and sweeping bombers? Just the general climate of rearmament?

Grigson seeks a candid opinion

Grigson seeks a candid opinion

Into my copy of Proem was tucked a message, on the back of an Art Trade Press Ltd slip, in the elegant handwriting of combative poetry impresario and critic Geoffrey Grigson. It’s addressed to “Dear Hugh” – perhaps the novelist Hugh Walpole:

“Thank you so much for your well chosen present. Here are some poems with my sincere wishes for Christmas & the New Year.

I should be interested to hear your candid opinion of Basham.

My warmest greetings to your family.”

Why did Grigson seek a “candid opinion”? The tone of his own work is not too far from Basham at times. Did he approve of the Audenisms, or find them ersatz? His New Verse set itself up as a scourge of the sham. Maybe a Grigson review will turn up at some point and shed some light.

In any case, Basham’s collection includes a good half dozen perfectly anthologisable “modern” pieces. They are as worthwhile as many comparable by other hands, and better than some. It’s a pity he didn’t persevere. In the event, Proem proved a preamble to nothing.

A very slight dent: Aerschot Performance Division 1976-9

At the risk of further blog-drift and internet vanity, I’ve put up a new page on the Aerschot Performance Division, a small footnote in the history of UK performance art in the ‘seventies in which I was a small participant – photos, documents, ephemera, some comments from Robert Worby. Very period, gratifyingly black and white, all very lo-tech and Letraset. Mostly personal dribs and drabs, so inevitably a bit unfair to the other participants – but hey …

Aerschot in action. (The writer on the right. Great photo by Denis Doran.)

Aerschot in action. (The writer on the right.
Great photo by Denis Doran.)

So what on earth were we trying to do? Hmm, not quite sure – and yet … Maybe it’s just me, but thirty five years on it all starts to look oddly relevant again. And surprisingly radical. Time perhaps to take up the deadpan dead hand of much current conceptualism, and gently return it to its roots in Dada. Time to rebuild the Theatre of Nerves!

(For collages by Peter Hatton, a fellow member of Aerschot, go here. For a reminiscence of Peter, go here.)