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)

Tag Archives: art

Following the Roberts

John Shelton, 'Cat on a Table' 1960

The influence of Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde on a number of young painters at their heels could maybe do with some flagging up. So added to my Two Roberts page is a note on the highly interesting Potteries painter John Shelton, information entirely courtesy of the valuable and much appreciated finbofinbo blog. Click here or use the tab above, and scroll to the bottom of the page.

Other Roberts-followers to follow, hopefully.

From the Fox’s mouth: a presenter apologises

The July transmissions of James Fox’s British Masters series on BBC 4 came in for much lambasting in this blog (posts of July 12, 19 and 26) and elsewhere. In the 2011 issue of The Journal of Wyndham Lewis Studies (just out), Dr Fox makes an extended seven page apologia/apology (“Response to Paul Edwards”) to “the Wyndham Lewis community”. In the defence of his programmes he manages, perhaps a little disingenuously, to leave himself a fair amount of wriggle room, though in the process he sheds a good deal of interesting light on the depressing business of how TV arts programmes are put together these days, and on the pressures and interests involved.

But his apology for the dismally distasteful treatment of Wyndham Lewis (particularly the notorious brain-brandishing episode) is rounded and generous.

Here (and this is in no way intended as triumphalist) is a little of the flavour:

“In part it was motivated by the desire to hook and provoke an audience whose attention had to be hard-earned and could easily be lost.

… countless inclusions, elisions and omissions were made for televisual rather than art-historical reasons.

Throughout the series … biography was preferred to context, narrative was preferred to analysis, and when discussing artworks, meaning was prioritized over form.

Edwards criticizes the programme’s misinterpretation of Lewis’s overall ambitions and individual works. He is completely right.

… my inability to substantiate those provocative assertions [that Lewis was misogynist, fascist, anti-Semite], or more importantly to qualify them, was such a dramatic simplification of Lewis’s views that it effectively became an inaccuracy.

I do not recall how the decision to film Lewis’s brain was made … This was a major error of judgement … it was also deeply distasteful, and I shall regret my involvement in that sequence for a long time.”

Sebastian

Photos of a fetish sculpture, Africa Gallery, British Museum

Lawrence Atkinson gallery additions

“Gallery” page for Lawrence Atkinson here (or use the tab above left) now has 17 sculptures added.

A little gallery for Lawrence Atkinson

A new page with thumbnails of all the images I can scrounge up of work by the Vorticist Lawrence Atkinson here, or use the tab up the top. 2D items done so far, the sculptures to follow.

“British Masters”, presented by James Fox, BBC 4, Monday 25 July, episode 3

It could have been worse. The final instalment of “British Masters”, to be fair, was perhaps the least absurd of the three, though that’s not saying much. Sauntering and chuntering his way towards the expiry of his nebulous thesis, the anxiously photogenic Dr Fox seemed to have calmed down slightly  – unless I’m getting used to him?

For Fox, every painting is a symbolist painting. And worse, a symbolist painting that only admits of a single one-dimensional interpretation. So Sutherland’s thorns represent weapons, inhumanity, post-war angst etc. But jagged natural forms appear in Sutherland’s paintings from the mid / late ‘thirties. He himself wrote that thorns “established a limit of aerial space … pricking out points in space.” In other words, his fascination with these shapes was at least as much formal as symbolic. As evidenced by his own words on archive film included in the programme, and by the optimistic colourings of some of the thorn paintings shown. But Fox only recognises symbolic and narrative content (which is why he rather obviously avoids the abstract), and seems oblivious to form, colour, texture, tonality – all the actual elements of painting.

So Bacon’s Three Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944) are “badly painted”, according to Fox. But what does “badly” mean in this context? He wasn’t saying. Ah, if only Alfred Munnings had done this instead – how much better it could have been!

Hockney’s California paintings were reckoned to be images of utter paradise. But the vast flatnesses, the bleak architecture, the sterile colouring, the absolute  absence of humanity in Bigger Splash – aren’t these indicators of at least a degree of two-mindedness on Hockney’s part? There’s paradise and then there’s paradise …

A figure composition by the wonderful Keith Vaughan was “explained” as some sort of Seven Ages of Man. Seated figure: clearly foetal. Figure with small limp willy: clearly rampant adult sexuality. Figure in a shade of grey: clearly dead, etc etc.

And so it went on. At least we were spared the talk (threatened in a trailer for the series) of Vaughan as “an obsessive masturbator”, which was an unexpected piece of good judgement. Meanwhile the doctor was still much in evidence, peering quizzically at a small piece of thorn bush, slumming it down a Bradford back alley, camping it up with a waxwork of David Hockney, fondling a Chevrolet etc. In a narcissism contest, Keith Vaughan would not have stood a chance here.

Most misleading was the poor attempt to make Vaughan’s sad suicide a signifier for the supposed death of British painting. Vaughan took the tablets in 1977, since when, according to Fox, it’s been sharks and beds all the way. Yet Vaughan recognised, in comments read by Fox in the programme, that his own eclipse was symptomatic of the triumph of Pop Art, which Fox had just hailed as a reinvigoration of the “tradition”. And what about the ‘eighties revival of painting and all that flowed from that? What about (to name three off the cuff) the popular, albeit over-rated, Paula Rego? The mysterious landscapes of Peter Doig? Or Jock McFadyen, whose gutsy characters are rooted in the ‘fifties paintings of Colquhoun and MacBryde, which were overlooked by Fox? (Too Scottish, maybe? Despite the series title, Fox clearly doesn’t do provinces, feeling most secure in the home counties.) But one could add dozens of more recent significant names, without even touching the ghastly Stuckists.

The last word on TV Art presenters can go to Keith Vaughan (Journals, 24 November 1973, reacting to John Berger on the box):

“Well – he’s too smooth. Too much the professional orator for me to believe in. Effective? Yes. He knows how to hang on the ball …Takes himself too seriously. A pundit. He overbids his hand.”

That’s about right. Cheers, Keith.

Percy Shakespeare and the hand of Satan

A chance meeting in 1920 between fourteen year old Percy Shakespeare and the Principal of Dudley Art School in the Black Country proved to be the beginning of a remarkable career as a professional painter for this disadvantaged young man, born and brought up in the tough Kate’s Hill and Wren’s Nest areas of Dudley, which still have a challenging reputation today. Percy’s fees were waived at the School, where he excelled, moving on to Birmingham College of Art and achieving his first Royal Academy success in 1933. On naval service during the war, he was killed at the age of 37 by a stray bomb during an air raid on Brighton.

A number of his paintings and studies are kept at Dudley Museum and Art Gallery. (Though not necessarily on show. Dudley Museum’s displays are an eclectic jumble, and big on dinosaurs.) Their site also offers a slightly expanded downloadable biography by Robin Shaw. The work is also shown and listed on the Black Country History site. In addition, the oil paintings are hosted on the BBC’s Your Paintings.

Shakespeare was an accomplished and fluent painter, earning a living from portraits and figure studies, his most ambitious pieces being a series of large compositions showing the good folk of Dudley in various leisure scenes – ice rink, boating, tropical bird house, music hall etc. Modernism made little impact on his style, but much of his work shows a pleasingly smooth art deco tonality akin to that of Bernard Fleetwood-Walker, one of his Birmingham teachers, though without Fleetwood-Walker’s celebratory high polish. At its best – Boy and Dog, On the Rhine, Schoolgirl – it shows an attractive Deco mannerism. The depersonalised and mildly unsettling Boy and Dog, though presumably commissioned as a straight domestic portrait, is closer to the more nuanced moodiness of, say, Dod Procter.

But there is one stand-out surviving painting, which has acquired the title of Self Portrait (Mephistopheles) and is dated to 1933. In this extraordinary and disquieting image, the artist faces the viewer at an oddly jaunty angle. Under a wide brimmed black hat, his heavy conjoined eyebrows emphasise an expression that might be intended as a hearty grin, but which feels more like a malicious leer. There is something worryingly artificial and insincere about the stylisation of the features and the gloss of the lips. The sinister effect is heightened by the rigid banality of the view through the window of council houses, trees and lawns on the “Wrenner”.

One might suspect that this self portrait acquired the “Mephistopheles” tag after the event – except for the sitter’s left hand, which is prominently highlighted against the dark of his clothing in the gesture  often tagged the “sign of Satan”, and popular nowadays with generations of juvenile Satanists and heavy metallers – middle two fingers curled down, index and little finger extended in imitation of the goat’s horns.

Despite (or because of) frequent confusion with a similar deaf sign and the “hook ‘em horns” gesture of the football team of the University of Texas, the obsessive collecting of photos showing celebrities and politicians apparently flashing this sign has become a boom industry for conspiracy theorists and  Illuminati spotters. As a result, the Wikipedia entry on this is not helpful on its origins. Was the gesture current and recognisable in 1933 in the Black Country? It seems unlikely. Or are we in danger, like the conspiracy theorists, of seeing significance where it was not intended?

Whatever the case, this deeply enigmatic painting has a darkly iconic quality, and deserves to be far better known.

Humphrey Spender’s ‘Atomic Flower’ and the New Apocalypse

(Since this was first posted, a larger image of this painting has become available at the ‘Your Paintings’ site, here.)

The release of the Public Catalogue Foundation’s (PCF) volumes of Oil Paintings in Public Ownership, and the development of the “Your Paintings” website, gives us all, at long last, a chance to see just what’s hidden away in the vaults of our local galleries that rarely or never comes out into the daylight.

Wolverhampton Art Gallery (my local) devotes whole furlongs of wall space to its unrivalled collections of Georgian and Victorian sepia mediocrities (the Fuseli excepted), justified by a display policy focused around social and historical content, a policy which also drives their recent purchases and contemporary collection. This doesn’t allow too much of an airing for the very decent 20th century material they mostly keep under the carpet.

A thumb through the PCF Staffordshire catalogue reveals quite a bunch of modernist and English surrealist items at Wolves: John Armstrong, John Banting, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, John Selby Bigge,  Duncan Grant, Tristram Hillier, Thomas Esmond Lowinsky, Augustus Lunn, John and Paul Nash, John Piper, William Roberts, Stanley Spencer, John Tunnard, Anthony Twentyman (six canvases), Edward Wadsworth, Alfred Wallis and, last but not least, Christopher Wood. Most are not often seen on the walls, and some never. They would make a good roomful, and a nice change from all those dull Georgian worthies and Victorian farm girls.

And in the Wolverhampton basement there is also this: Atomic Flower by Humphrey Spender. (This small image here will have to do for the time being.) Yes, that’s Spender the photographer, Mass Observationist, textile designer and brother to poet Stephen. His paintings (a bit of a sideline) tended to follow prevailing styles, which in the late ‘thirties for him meant surrealism, though Michel Remy carefully excludes him from his 1991 study, Surrealism in Britain. This canvas is dated to 1939-40, and is not among his most technically accomplished, even for that relatively early date. But to me it seems of unusual interest.

The collection catalogue describes it as an “open interior of a room in a landscape. Inside the room is a giant flower with a colourful fiery centre. There are scientific/mechanical objects placed in the landscape.” The “room” is perhaps better described as a box-like building with the near wall and roof missing. A front door is left hanging in space above the steps, and a window has clearly been blown out. The walls appear black and charred.

Distant mountains are fronted by a flat plain punctuated by receding poles or fence posts in the manner of Paul Nash etc. The foreground objects clearly owe a great deal to Edward Wadsworth’s semi-surreal marine still lives, a couple resembling ship’s screw propellers in a non-specific way. In the corner of the room sits a metal object composed of three elliptical loops around a central axis.

At the heart of the building, and of the composition, a huge dark textured flower unfolds, its five molten petals surrounding a centre of orange and blue flames – the atomic flower of the title. Despite the naivety of its execution, the image achieves a disquieting and threatening quality.

Given the dating, we are likely to take this for a Blitz image, a surrealist variant of the bombed street ruins made iconic, in a neo-romantic way, by John Piper, John Minton et al. On the other hand, given the title, this does look uncannily like a premonition of nuclear warfare – gleaming scientific instruments creating a mushroom-like exploding fiery form that devastates the landscape. And where is this landscape? (New Mexico? Los Alamos?) How likely is any of this for 1940?

Nuclear fission was discovered on the eve of World War two, and a practicable atomic bomb was still widely considered impossible in 1940, the Manhattan Project not getting under way until 1942. Could the dating of the painting be wrong? Or the title have been adopted at a later date?

The term “atomic flower” is now sometimes colloquially applied to the familiar stylised  “atom symbol” representing electrons circling the nucleus. Variants show either three or four ellipses, making six or eight “petals”. Remarkably, a three dimensional version of this symbol is present in the painting, in the shape of the scientific object on the corner of the floor. The symbol may have been known to Spender at this time in some diagram form, but the term “atomic flower” is a recent coinage, making his prescience even more striking.

The term has lately acquired a different connotation. As a contribution to the work of the US Human Interference Task Force, charged with devising “nuclear semiotic” warnings against contact with stored radioactive waste that will remain intelligible for the next 10,000 years, the SF writer Stanislaw Lem has proposed the development of “information plants” or “atomic flowers” that would grow only in the vicinity of terminal storage sites. Spender’s monstrous flower lends itself well to this scenario.

Though the fear of “nuclear apocalypse” was not born until 1945, the catchphrase “Apocalypse” or “New Apocalypse” was coined in 1940 as an umbrella for the vague coalition of philosophical anarchism, “personalism” and neo-romantic tendencies in the arts, loosely related to surrealism, promoted during the war years by Henry Treece, J F Hendry, Stefan Schimanski, Robert Herring and others in reviews such as Transformation and Kingdom Come. It seems ironic that at the end of the war, just as the coherence, such as it was, of the New Apocalypse movement was unravelling, the prospects for nuclear apocalypse suddenly drew terrifyingly close. A real New Apocalypse!

The poetry of the Apocalypse movement has since been largely discredited in critical terms, though British neo-romantic painting has enjoyed a re-evaluation over recent years. The quality of the Apocalypse poets and writers was variable, to say the least. But the movement is not without interest, and I aim to consider some aspects in the future on this site. Spender’s Atomic Flower would have made a fine poster image for the New Apocalypse.

“British Masters”, presented by James Fox, BBC 4, Monday 18 July, episode 2: Fields of Corn

Dear Dr Fox

Having watched episode 2 of “British Masters” last night, I thought I would send you a write-up of my notes from the programme, in case you might like to pass them on to anyone who missed it. The bits in brackets are my own comments. Here they are, then:

A mysterious lone figure crosses a cornfield. It is John Nash, “searching for inspiration”.

More mysterious lone figures criss-cross the cornfields. They are the British Masters, “in search of England”. [Er – British or English? The Scots, Irish and Welsh wish to know …]

Cookham’s importance for Stanley Spencer is only in its particularity. [His version of Christianity appears to be shared by the BNP.] Dr Fox declares SS’s painting of the resurrection to be “uplifting”. But Spencer’s fragile English identity takes a bit of a knock when Patricia Preece won’t have sex with him.

Alfred Munnings painted British horses and got very drunk. His “gloriously sentimental” paintings are very good, “simply because of what he painted”. [The equally gloriously sentimental paintings of Alma-Tadema are very bad, because they show classical chicks taking their kit off, and not British horses.]

The “British People” send a message to Bill Coldstream. They demand Reality!

No one except Paul Nash had the idea of being both British and Modern at the same time. [Not even Henry Moore. Not even Ben Nicholson. Not even etc etc.]

Dr Fox points to a small tree stump. “I think Paul Nash had a revelation here.”

Judging by the archive film clips, the very same bus in which Paul Nash was taken poorly was immediately afterwards strafed by Jerry fighter planes.

There is absolutely NO connection between Piper’s abstract paintings of the ‘thirties [series of coloured rectangles] and his towers and ruins of the ‘forties [series of coloured rectangles]. The former are Modernist. The latter are “traditional British painting”.

We won the War. Hurray! Cue Churchill: “… shall fight ‘em on the beaches …” Cue Elgar. Cue Dr Fox, striding into the sunset across fields of corn.

Huge fields of corn.

Hope this helps.

Best etc,
Richard Warren

Images of George Barker by Patrick Swift and Geoff Stevens

Bits on two portraits of George Barker added to the “more fragments” page – tab up the top, or go here, and scroll down.