Richard Warren

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

Monthly Archives: October 2017

Repentance and re-painting

Flipping through the Yale UP and National Gallery’s weighty 1991 Rembrandt: the Master & his Workshop (local Oxfam, 99p), I was struck by this, by Ernst van de Wetering, on Rembrandt’s “liberal use of the repentir, or alteration made while painting”:

Nowadays we tend to regard the repentir as the record of a highly individual process, by which the artist revises and improves as he searches for the perfect form, as if regretting his earlier solution. The terms repentir and pentimento are in fact derived from words meaning “repentance”, and in Germany they even spoke of the Reuezug or “stroke of repentance”. There are at least a few pentimenti in any painter’s oeuvre. Titian, though, made countless modifications to his work, and evidently did so without feeling the slightest bit contrite, for traces of the rejected passages are often still visible, and in many cases must have been so in his own day as well.

Repentir: the Arnolfini hand

I’ve long appreciated that “repentance” simply means, quite literally, a re-think, rather than the guilt-fuelled self-pummelling my evangelical upbringing once made of it, but the idea of the artist’s pentimento or correction as an image of the practice of repentance hadn’t occurred to me.

The altering mark is not, in my experience, a matter of self-rebuke, but one approximation of many – another movement a little closer, at least for now, towards the reality of the image. The charcoal adjusts itself towards the conception for which it strives. What is abandoned in the alteration may be left visible, not as bravado, not merely as a sign of confidence but as an act of confession; the nail wounds are still present on the truly shameless hands of the resurrected and perfected Christ. “Confession” in its original sense means acknowledgement, while stigmata are merely “marks”.

The same day, I browsed the latest National Trust magazine and came across a little item on the members’ page that seemed somehow connected; it features Rachel, Rebekah and Sarah, teenage triplets who from the age of 13 have painted single landscapes as a trio:

We painted on one canvas together and did it three times as fast as we would have individually because we could swap when one of us got tired … Rachel is really good at plants and foliage, Sarah is best at skies and Rebekah prefers architecture. So we work out what we each want to do before we start and come up with a plan that plays to our strengths and combines our styles. It can be annoying if someone changes something that one of us has worked on in a certain way, but we always work through it.

The National Trust triplets: Trinitarian

How excellent! Without wishing to deny the individualities of the girls in any way, it’s hard to conceive of a better icon of the creating Trinity, or a better illustration of a process of collective or communitarian repentance, as each member of the godhead, while maintaining her specialism, thoughtfully modifies the strokes of another as they “work through it”.

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Tasteful metaphysics: Tristram Hillier

A first sight, ages ago, of one of Tristram Hillier’s Portugese paintings, a view of the square at Viseu, still sticks with me as a memorable moment of viewing panic. Yes, the “local colour” jug and hat in the foreground are stagey and naff. But beyond their (calculatedly?) misleading invitation, the space opens up ominously, peopled only by hostile and imperceptibly lengthening shadows. After a little while you ask yourself, “Where is everybody?” Siesta doesn’t seem an entirely satisfactory explanation.

Viseu, Portugal 1947

 

At the far end of the wall at the left [click to enlarge] is what appears, at a lazy glance, to be a head and shoulders punctuating the perspective, but it’s only a corner pillar. Our eye moves on towards the vanishing point of the dark church door, where it picks up an echoing bollard and shadow beneath the right hand tower. Or is it a black mantilla’d figure? It’s too frustratingly small for us to say, but its absolute, static isolation is disconcerting.

This was painted in 1947, a long time after Hillier is supposed to have shed his Surrealist cred, but it is still pumped full of de Chirico. And pittura metafisica is surely the strongest borrowing of many in Hillier’s work, which at other points shows shades of Nash, Wadsworth, Magritte or Dali (whom Hillier affected to disdain), with here and there a bit of Ravilious, Michael Ayrton or Rex Whistler, even.

A recent Oxfam acquisition for me is A Timeless Journey, slightly unfortunately titled, but otherwise a decent little catalogue of a Hillier show at Bradford and elsewhere in 1983. (It contains such startling information as: “His father, manager of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank in Peking, went blind at the age of thirty and was on the point of shooting himself when persuaded to become a Roman Catholic instead.”) The foreword admits that this exhibition, unexpectedly posthumous after Hillier’s death that January, was “the first serious and comprehensive survey of his whole career”. And a bit of googling suggests that Jenny Pery’s 2008 coffee table study Painter Pilgrim is still
the only real book on the man.

So has Hillier been unfairly neglected? There’s no doubt that many dislike his fall from fellow travelling Surrealism into a kind of baroque English tastefulness, which threatens to undermine, or even invert, the irony of the enigma – a disalienation, a recuperation of the surreal. This tastefulness seems to have survived the war intact, apparently bypassing the nuclear angst of the Apocalypse movement, into which you’d think Hillier might have slotted rather well.

And then the hard edged pedantic realism of his technique can be very alienating. Magritte used this to make an impossible thing solid, so apparently possible; Hiller uses it to to freeze a probable thing (like a Portugese town square), making it worryingly less so, which is fair enough. But the sheer insistence of it, the relentless sharp focus, is not to everyone’s liking.

 

To my mind, Hillier is at his best in industrial mode, where he’s able to evade the picturesque charm that can colour his marine subjects. In paintings such as Pylons (1933 or 1935), Beach Scene with Radio Masts (1934), or La Route des Alpes (1937), there is a genuine, and oddly attractive, unease, not sugared by whimsy or nostalgia, a real live fear of the impersonal, confronting near-future.

Hillier – neglected?

There’s a lot more to be said about Hillier. Even in his lesser moments, he is always interesting, as a browse of his ArtUK page will prove. I notice that he even painted butterflies in 1955 for a Shell Nature Studies guide – yet another Damien Hirst steal.