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: August 2016

The fabric of war

And so to the excellent Imperial War Museum North at Salford Quays, and in particular to their “Fashion on the Ration” show, a fine selection of British WW2 utility and creativity in stitching, running till May next year, and very much worth a look in. I was taken aback by the outrageous up-market “propaganda” scarves and fabrics – clearly anticipating the rise of Lettrism in their sloganising. (Click for enlarged slides.)


In the book/gift shop on the way out I noticed that the entire IWM “Dazzle” range of WW1 merchandising is now being flogged off at half price. Actually, I’m not too surprised, given that the IWM’s collaborators on this range, the bright young people at Patternity (“the world’s leading cult pattern specialists”) don’t actually seem to get the idea of dazzle ship camouflage, and have “re-imagined” this Vorticist application as a sort of simplistic GCSE op art of counterchanged black and white stripes, which it ain’t at all. The contents of my half price Dazzle post card pack will give the idea – half a dozen good cards of the real thing and four lacklustre “re-imaginings”.

Jazz and the undulating see-fields of Stanley Jackson

After five years’ blogging, you’d think I’d have learned to exhaust leads before rushing to post, but I haven’t, so here’s a second instalment on the marvellous but mysterious Stanley Jackson (see previous post).

The A J McCarthy who penned the text to Jackson’s images in George Woodcock’s Now 4 was indeed jazz writer Albert McCarthy, and the next issue of Now ran an advert for a new review, Jazz Forum, edited by McCarthy and due out in September 1945. In the event, with rather modified contents, it appeared in June 1946 and lasted for just five issues, spanning a little over a year. Interestingly, McCarthy’s policy was to blend jazz content with a wider literary flavour, taking jazz out of the specialist box and making it an element in a broader modern movement. Accordingly, contributors were pulled from the philosophical anarchists and neo-romantic poets networked around Now, plus pukka British surrealists such as Ithell Colquhoun and Toni del Renzio, with some transatlantic contributions.


From issue three the weight shifted, purer jazz writing dominating, but all five issues sported a front cover by Stanley Jackson. Fortunately, every issue is digitised here on the National Jazz Archive site, from where I’ve borrowed images (discreetly “watermarked”) of the covers. I find his designs remarkable. Not only have they an assured virtuosity, but they are bang on the cusp of the cultural moment, or a lurch beyond it; it’s hard to believe, for instance, that the fifth cover was done in 1947, so perfectly does it gel with 21st century cartoonoid mini-character design. The carved characters there and in number 3 (the oddest of the bunch) are maybe chosen for their supposed African qualities; otherwise, the covers keep to morphing, musical abstractions. They are signed “jaxon”, “jxn” or “stanly[sic] jackson”; apart from the reduced spelling, the latter is perfectly compatible with the signature on the National Army Museum painting mentioned last time, proving that both are indeed by the same hand.


The ad for issue 1 of Jazz Forum indicates that it incorporated Conception, previously advertised as the “experimental jazz literary review” of McCarthy’s “Jazz Sociological Society”. It’s unlikely that issue 1 of this ever made it into print; if it had, it would have included more “reproductions” of Jackson’s work, but I can’t find any trace of it. A couple of other covers for Jazz Sociological Society publications are clearly by Jackson, but are considerably less edgy in style.

However, Jazz Forum 1 does contain a book review by Jackson, which seems to have been created by tacking some very brief afterthoughts onto an existing personal credo. (The “review” is of number 5 of George Leite’s US literary review, Circle, to which McCarthy was a contributor, available from Jazz Forum.) This feverish piece of writing reveals a descent into oneiric worlds that might even hint at some hallucinogenic input, as well as a fondness for italics and for neo-Joycean hyphenated compounds such as “tumult-foam” or “pure-truth”. It may not be the most cogent artistic manifesto ever but it’s well worth a read, so here it is. (Jazz Forum has its share of typo’s; the three bracketed corrections are mine.)

CIRCLE 5.

The object in writing, painting, music, is to reveal something of the grandeur which belongs [brings ?] potential to man.

*           *           *

The music of the laughter of sound as thrown off from undulating see-fields, the multitudinous laughter of the ocean billows-love addressing the ear and the eye-mustering tumult-foam weaving garlands of translucent radiance for one poised moment in the eddies of gleaming abysses, sea-cradel’d[sic] flowers to the eye raise phantoms of gaiety rising as far as the eye can reach ….

*           *           *

Painting … sinking into night depths, blazing into day-heights, now skimming the shimmering surface, now sinking heavily into darkness, rising buoyantly into light. The layer upon layer of pigment extorting the torments; winging the dream-imagery to lofty brilliance – this tumult of images! Everlasting layers of ideas, feelings, images, images which madden, which terrify, which intoxicate, images which sob, have fallen – softly as light, as light upon light, upon the artist’s perception, conception.

Each successive image has seemed to bury all that had ever happened before, and yet, in its sur-reality, not one has been extinguished, They are all predetermined, gathered, waiting … ignoring whatever heterogeneous elements life may have accumulated from without. The pall of present, the pall of future, deep as oblivion, has been thrown over every trace of these vrai-experiences, they, so long, have slept in the dust of memory-past, there waiting for the bright steel tube of memory-future to probe and shatter them into a thousand multi-coloured fragments of human grandeur …

Suddenly a signal, a word, a note, a colour from the artist who can dream splendidly, the pall lifts, the fantastic, incredible, yet pure-truth theatre is revealed.

*           *           *

Whatever may be the number of those in whom this faculty of dreaming splendidly-sleeps, there are not many in whom it is developed – and far more rare is it for a man, who possesses this ability, to awaken the sleep – and to capture the instant. For unfortunately, the condition of living which burdens the vast majority to a daily existence incompatible with much elevated dream-thinking, undoubtedly sullies the colour of grandeur in the capturing-faculty of phantasy, even for those whose minds are filled with imagery. To dream splendidly, a man must have an incredible determination for imagery, and a continual obsession to awaken his sleeping dream-phantasy.

“Circle” have published two such men in their issue number five.

Frederick [Frederic] Ramsey Jr., his story of Vanicilio Meban, and Dane Ruhdyar, his Neptune, evocator extraordinary. It is also very pleasant to see Klee’s provocative thought-sketches again.

STANLEY JACKSON.

After 1947, the Jackson trail goes cold for me. What happened to him? Do his illustrations crop up elsewhere? Where is all the rest of his artwork? If anyone reading this has access to Buckman’s Artists in Britain since 1945 (sadly no longer online at issuu.com) or any similar directory, could you scan me Jackson’s entry, if he has one? I’d be very grateful. Otherwise, the hunt for more of Stanley Jackson is most well and truly on, over the undulating see-fields of billows-love to the bright steel tube of memory-future …

conception ad

Royal academician goes bonkers: the mysterious Stanley Jackson

Now 4

 

 

It’s good when something rather wonderful turns up unexpectedly, especially if it involves a “lost” British surrealist. Or quasi-surrealist, even. Yesterday the postman delivered my copy of Now 4, George Woodcock’s anarcho-arty-literary review put out under the Freedom Press banner, this issue apparently from late 1944. A few pages away from what I’d been looking for were four bonus and totally bongoid images by an unheard-of artist, with this curious little write-up:

PATTERN OF FRUSTRATION

Four Drawings by Stanley Jackson

The work of Stanley Jackson has not yet received the attention that it undoubtedly merits, the main reason for this being that it deals with subjects which society prefers to ignore – death, frustration, the hopelessness of individual life and the pointlessness of accepting the current solutions. In this sense Stanley Jackson is a Romantic in outlook for he sees man as a victim of his environment, and has no faith in the political panaceas which glib-tongued orators espouse so convincingly, and with such cost to mankind. In the past he had paintings exhibited at the Royal Academy, but his present development represents a withdrawal from the academic field towards a personal maturity which can only be expressed in less rigid forms.

Pattern of Frustration is, in my opinion, one of the clearest statements of the evolution of the individual in society. In the first reproduction we see the apparently solid footing suddenly merging into nothingness, and from this moment the individual is caught up in the struggle which can end only in defeat. The symbolism of the second phase needs no explanation while the third part shows the ephemeral moment when an ecstatic realisation is glimpsed. The final stage is portrayed in the last reproduction – the moment vanishes to be followed by the inevitable frustration – either the individual has to accept and adapt himself, or he faces annihilation. From this dilemma there is no escape.

A. J. McCARTHY.


Frustration? Er, well, yes. This doesn’t exactly flood the subject with clear light. A J McCarthy is no easy name to place, but I’m pretty sure that this has to be the A J McCarthy who wrote widely on jazz in the ‘fifties and who lived at this point in Notting Hill. I imagine Jackson was a mate. As for People and assJackson himself, he was born in 1917 but at the moment I can find little else. It seems that he did his time as a serviceman, but he is nowhere credited as a war artist. The National Army Museum holds a competent oil portrait of a soldier of the Madras Guards, done in 1943, signed with that name in a style not incompatible with the signing on our four images, while auction value websites throw up just one image of a painting of wartime refugees, shown here, and list a still life and a couple of watercolour views possibly by the same man – precious little survival for his “academic” phase and RA showings.

The four images in Now (click them above to enlarge) show a technical competence compatible with these two earlier pieces, but in every other respect they are light years away; their “Jaxon” signature suggests, for whatever reason, a very deliberate dissociation, while their cartoony plasticity and psycho-content surely owe much to the example of the wonderful Reuben Mednikoff, potholer of the unconscious. (See this post.) They’re described as drawings, but the rather grainy reproductions suggest that, if not pastels, they might even be paintings.

In the same issue of Now, McCarthy’s slightly baffling use of the term “frustration” is echoed, and perhaps explained, in a stodgy opener by editor George Woodcock on “The Writer and Politics” which bemoans the “schizoid frustration [my emphasis] … of the modern intellectual when confronted by social issues,” and proposes a disengagement of the writer from collective political activity as the only guarantee of uncontaminated authenticity. All part of the ongoing wriggling and repositioning of British leftist writers post-Auden and post-Popular Front. McCarthy’s outline implies that the crisis of Woodcock’s writer is experienced by every individual in a modern society in their compromised relations to social and political forces. (Woodcock’s position amounts to a neo-Stirnerism, an egoist or existentialist anarchism, which was common ground among Freedom Pressers, Apocalyptics and Personalists at the time. See also my piece on the anarchism of Henry Treece. More to come, incidentally, on the “anarchist” poetry of Woodcock and Alex Comfort in future posts.)

The works’ four titles have to be Jackson’s own, but is the sequence title “Pattern of Frustration” just McCarthy’s after-gloss on a selection of Jackson’s images? Or was that meta-meaning part of the artist’s intent? It’s hard to be sure. If the latter, these would not be surrealist works; rather than emerging from a process of automatism they would be symbolisations of pre-existing ideas. And it’s maybe true that they lack something of the unexpectedness of the comparable but genuinely automatic imagery of Mednikoff, Grace Pailthorpe or Sam Haile. So are they merely contrived and cynical pastiches of the surreal?

I don’t think so. And to be honest, I don’t care. I think they’re great, and it’s a huge pity we only have them in black and white. The fragmented amoeboids sucked past blasted trees through the sgraffito wind tunnel of Awareness are a classic image of wartime angst, while the John Tunnard-ish outline face of Ultimate Despair (great title), while practically toppling over into comic doom, sits brilliantly over the strange pointy-breasted nude and the drooping background monsters. What’s really going on here? Is it too glib to ascribe this extraordinary lurch into psychologism to the trauma of Jackson’s wartime experiences? It’s hard to imagine what might otherwise account for it, so perhaps not.

And what happened to these works of Jackson’s “personal maturity”? Do they survive? And are there more of the same out there? I need to know. If you can tell me, use the comments option, please!

Minor post script

On closer inspection, there is another war period Jackson hidden on the Art UK site, an oil of boat builders at Madras, listed as by E Jackson. However,  subject location, painting style and signature are all compatible with the National Army Museum picture, and it’s easy to take an “S” for an “E”. The painting is here. It’s owned by Nuneaton Museum and Art Gallery and was bought in 1970. It’s a decent, unremarkable work, and I’m struck again by the extraordinary transition in Jackson’s career.

Incidentally, is it just me, or do others find the Art UK site, with its annoying, floating, pinterest-style, pick n’ mix pages, a lot harder to use than the old Your Paintings site?

 

Curated to death

If there’s one word that’s been abused recently to the point of transparency, it has to be “creative” (as a noun). And if there’s another, it has to be “curate” (as a verb). Wandering through John Lewis in Birmingham the other day I was shocked (but shouldn’t have been) to stumble across this placard:

“We regularly update this space with a carefully curated selection of contemporary designers and standout pieces.

 Discovered. Loved. Curated. All here to be found.”

Space … curated … designers … pieces … found: the language of the art gallery. (Are retail displays yet tagged as “installations”? I expect so.) But I know this isn’t new. In 2012 John Lewis first used “Curated” as an in-house brand for their “boutique space” housing “bespoke selections.” Lately and more generally, “curated” has come to mean simply “offered for sale”. Here fine art and shopping have achieved a horribly overt congruence. But it’s no more than we deserve.

In this particular case, John Lewis’s “curated selection” seemed to be just a bunch of Urban Decay cosmetics, including Vice lipsticks. Again, nothing new, but the brand language is interesting here, isn’t it? It shows where the moral compass is pointing at this moment in the post-millennial flux, and that’s still firmly towards the dark side. Is it possible to imagine anyone keen to buy makeup labelled “Civic Regeneration” or “Virtue”? Outside of some Age of Enlightenment time travel scenario, I don’t think so, but the key question is: why not?

vice

Urban Decay regularly use the language of junkiedom to give their products edge, and I notice that (at least in the States) their sun screen is tagged as “Urban Defense”. Already the fashion industry is not afraid to co-opt the frisson of terrorism, counter-terrorism and mass shootings, witness also the Viktor & Rolf Spicebomb aftershave, whose hand grenade packaging set off a security scare at Edinburgh airport a while ago. Not long now till the suicide belt moves from the bad taste fancy dress market into the high street. Just the job to hold a carefully curated selection of loved and found objects.

spicebomb