Richard Warren

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

Tag Archives: art deco

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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The worrying kitsch of W F Colley

Of the smattering of prints and drawings that grace our staircase, one of my favourites is this pencil sketch by the Birmingham artist and lithographer William Frederick Colley, which I found going for a small song in a Leominster antique shop:

I know nothing of Colley except that he was born in 1907, died in 1957, and was a member of the RBSA (Royal Birmingham Society of Artists), though that wasn’t necessarily a big deal, to be frank. He was also an artist member of the Senefelder Club, a lithograph subscription scheme. His surviving prints seem mostly to date from the 1930’s, though the styling of the faces in this drawing suggests the ‘forties or ‘fifties to me. I imagine that this montage of panto scenes was a design for a lithograph. It’s signed with his monogram on the leg of the cat (a bit Louis Wain) at lower left. The drawing has something of an expressionist feel, and features such as the up-lit shadows on the audience faces, and the way that the witch’s head jigsaws exactly into the space over the main character’s shoulder,  give it a bit of a sinister edge, which seems calculated.

Dancer c1930

Workmen c1930

Cart Horse 1933

Spring 1935

A comparable spookiness in some of his earlier work seems to be less than calculated, judging by this selection of prints culled from auction sites etc. His style and content were vernacular and must have been aimed at the popular end of the market. What effect there is of modernism can be seen mainly in the heavy, gradated sweeps of the lithographic crayon across the stone, laying down strong sub-cubist tonal forms, which have led to his work sometimes being tagged as “Art Deco”. But at times this tonality is so strong that the effect is predominantly dark and rigid – and inadvertently so, we suspect. The bleating lamb in Spring ends up as anything but innocent, while his Gazelle, which seems to have attempted a heraldic decorativeness, has taken on a distinctly demonic air. In fact, all Colley’s muscular animals are a little worrying …

Lilies c1935

The Farmer 1935

The Bull 1936

Gazelle

This gap between intent and effect takes some of his work into the category of kitsch, but a kitsch of accidental malevolence, rather than one of sentimental melancholy, of nostalgia or of totalitarian wholesomeness. Having said that, Moonlight achieves petit-bourgeois sentiment nicely, and is entirely successful in its polite nods to Frances Hodgkins et al. And Colley has a nice line in chunky, Paul Nash-like trees.

Gypsies in Autumn 1939

Young Colt 1941

Moonlight

Monkeys

It would be good to find out more about him, but I doubt that I will be visiting the RBSA, given the £20 per enquiry that they ask. I wonder what might be in the vaults at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery? Comments and any further info welcome.