Richard Warren

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

Tag Archives: Bloomsbury

Fred and Jessie Etchells at Charleston

‘Frederick and Jessie Etchells painting’ by Vanessa Bell

On a recent trip Dahn Sarf, I was intrigued by the cultural geography of the central Sussex coast. To the East, shabby old Eastbourne. To the West, chic Brighton and Hove. Half way between, logically enough, shabby chic Lewes. And near Lewes, Charleston house – picturesque ex-pad of Bloomsbury painters Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, temple of shabby chicdom, home of slightly distressed pale grey woodwork, and fount of all Laura Ashliness. Given that Grant and Bell had done their best stuff by 1920, it’s somehow appropriate that, a century on, Bloomsbury survives flickeringly as a lifestyle look, filtered sanitised through a thousand pages of Country Living. (See also Pamela Todd’s Bloomsbury at Home, 1999.)

But however ambivalent one’s feelings towards the Bloomsberries, there are enough modernist echoes at Charleston to make it a very worthwhile visit. The rooms are splendidly cluttered with Bells and Grants and bits and bobs of Omega, some of them even rather good. And one may stroll and muse in the gardens where Virginia mused and strolled, which can’t be bad.

But I was most chuffed to be confronted unexpectedly by no less than Frederick Etchells’ The Dead Mole (1912), currently on temporary loan from the Fitzwilliam (where, apparently, it doesn’t often see the light of day) and hanging at Charleston next to Duncan Grant’s comparable Queen of Sheba. A bit of a shock: I hadn’t realised just what a massive canvas this is – near enough six feet tall. (I’d visualised idly this simple image as a small work.) In the flesh, its size heightens the painting’s impressive and tragic intensity. But what the heck is it about? Are we missing some purely private narrative?

Maybe so, according to Etchells, who later alluded vaguely to an incident involving the mole, “a sort of tramp” to whom he had given “a sort of corduroy suit”, and a visiting small boy. Richard Cork (Vorticism: Origins and Development, 1976) has interpreted this incident as an “inconsequential prank”, but I’m not so sure. Cork here (as usual) trivialises what he doesn’t understand: for him, The Dead Mole shows “wilful eccentricity”, “wayward distortion”, “fanciful proportions”, “stylistic caprice”, “vagaries” and so on. But regardless of its origin, this image is a memento mori, a passage from innocence to experience in an encounter with mortality. One can imagine exactly the same subject painted in a high Victorian populist-realist style, downgrading it to an unexceptional moralist narrative painting, but Etchells has propelled it determinedly into the modern era, giving the content new force. Formally, there may be the odd unresolved feature (the overly solid tree roots at right, for instance), but even as an experiment this works, and it reminds us that, flaws notwithstanding, Etchells was an interesting painter working in some interesting directions that would lead him inevitably away from Grant and Bloomsbury to Lewis and Vorticism.

Despite the post-impressionist brush marks and colours, the balletic exaggeration of the figures recalls Mediaeval art or Greek vase paintings, maybe with a hint of the Italian primitives, perhaps even shaped a little by the aesthetic mannerism of Aubrey Beardsley. This atavistic experimentation with the human form is analogous to the contemporary “wild body” images of Wyndham Lewis, or Duncan Grant’s dancers. It is quite separate to cubist deconstruction of the figure, though maybe permitted by it. And Etchells certainly enjoyed an elongated leg with a pointed toe, as this Group of Figures shows. (Not shown in the image here of The Dead Mole, though properly part of the work, is its geometrically decorated frame – an Etchells trademark. This photo, incidentally, seems to give the piece a greenish cast, which I don’t recall in the real thing. No photography by visitors is permitted at Charleston.)

A similar handling of the figures appears even more overtly in Etchells’ smaller tempera painting The Entry into Jerusalem, also from 1912, which does hang permanently at Charleston and was once owned by Grant. (“Openly whimsical … a caricatured Christ … fantastically elongated”, according to Cork, who seems to have lost it completely with this one.) The composition may not be entirely resolved here, but the figures work well, and you can see what Etchells is aiming for. (Again, the photo here seems to exaggerate the blues and the background yellow. And again, the patterned frame is not shown.)

Frederick was not the only Etchell hanging out with Grant and Bell in 1912, though. To the left of the fireplace in the Studio at Charleston hang two modest but pleasing paintings, both cubistoid trios of figures, by Jessie Etchells. She is remembered more as sister to Frederick than as a painter in her own right, so it’s good to see these. (To me, in the daylight, Three Figures, 1912, had more of a dull greenish look to it, giving the electric blue of the tree trunks a high contrast. The colours seem similarly lightened and separated in this photo of The Opera Box, also 1912, which I noted as done in dark browns and yellow ochres, like a Sickert theatre interior, rather than the washed out blues, crimsons and yellows here.)

Three Figures

The Opera Box

Jessie and Frederick Etchells with Julian Bell

King Mobster in Bloomsbury: T J Clark, Picasso and Wyndham Lewis

As the memorable Jonathan Richman song asserts,

Well some people try to pick up girls
And they get called an asshole
But this never happened to Pablo Picasso

Well perhaps not, but it’s certainly happened to Wyndham Lewis, if only in T J Clark’s review of the Picasso and Modern British Art show at Tate Britain. (“False Moderacy”, London Review of Books, 22 March.) TJ, among many, seems quite unable to resist Picasso’s stare, as the song puts it. For these Picasso-olaters (his own term), their man is the default reference point. So works with a perceived degree of resemblance must be, by definition, versions of Picasso-ism –  lesser followings, whose authenticities shade from the worthy to the damnable. (This assumption could be said to underlie the Tate show itself, which in this respect may have been unwisely conceived.)

So, according to TJ:

“There is a scare-quotes ‘Picasso’-ism, all rending and tearing and leering and terribilità, at the heart of the pseudo-culture of art from 1910 on; and off to one side there is Picasso-ism for real. Wyndham Lewis is a good example of the first …”

But in no sense was Lewis a “Picasso-ist”. The alleged “leering and terribilità” may be a confused reference to the hilarious but disturbing mannequins of Lewis’ pre-Vorticist “wild body” period, which could be said to indicate understanding and awareness of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, but do not follow its agenda. (If anything, they are closer to the primitivism of Larionov, with which they are contemporaneous.) So Lewis is damned for failing to achieve something he didn’t even attempt. (In fact, as we shall see, he declined on principle to attempt it.)

This is a very skewed view. The skewing seems to be informed by TJ’s preoccupation with the authentically revolutionary, whose focal point is manifestly Parisian, from Courbet and Manet to Pissarro and Picasso, with nods along the way to others on the boulevards. But how has he acquired such values?

In 1967 Timothy Clark was excluded from his brief membership of the British section of the Paris-based Situationist International, along with Christopher Gray and Donald Nicholson-Smith, on account of their unwanted closeness to the Americans Ben Morea and Abbie Hoffman. (“The falsifier and his mystical acolyte”, as Internationale Situationniste 12 put it. For anyone who cares, Ken Knabb’s translation of the episode is here.) Excluded from their revolutionary Eden, the three co-pro-situ’s went on to publish King Mob Echo, and Timothy Clark morphed into TJ, the academic mandarin. One can only surmise that the trauma of his expulsion must have imprinted on Clark a disproportionate anxiety about Parisian revolutionary authenticity from which he has never recovered.

But hang on, haven’t we been here before – long before? Isn’t this just a brush-up of the Francophile camp-following of Clive Bell and Roger Fry? Here is Bell:

“English painters appear to have preferred being pygmies amongst cranes to being artists amongst artists. Aurons-nous change tout ca? Qui vivra verra. The league exists; its permanent headquarters are in Paris …”

“Picasso’s is the paramount influence in Europe … The younger and more intelligent foreigners, within and without the gates of Paris, know well enough that Picasso is still their animator.”

This snobisme, this displaced chauvinism in which travel away from the Left Bank is a journey into the “suburban” and “provincial” (two of Bell’s favourite insults), is the Bloomsbury agenda which Lewis fought during his entire career. As Bloomsbury shaped the primacy of Paris for British taste, so conversely it funnelled to the Continent its own value judgements on British modernism. As Picasso is reported (by Ben Nicholson) to have remarked: “Why, when I ask about modern artists in England, am I always told about Duncan Grant?” To the end of his days Lewis opposed the reactionary effect and deadening legacy of Bloomsbury. And he never shrank from identifying the weaknesses of Picasso. As early as 1915, in Blast 2, he had made the highly perceptive critique that

“The Cubist, especially Picasso, founds his invention on the posed model, or the posed Nature-Morte, using these models almost to the extent of the Impressionist … HOWEVER MUSICAL OR VEGETARIAN A MAN MAY BE, HIS LIFE IS NOT SPENT EXCLUSIVELY AMONGST APPLES AND MANDOLINES … The placid empty planes of Picasso’s later “natures-mortes”, the bric-à-brac of bits of wall-paper, pieces of cloth, etc., tastefully arranged, wonderfully tastefully arranged, is a dead and unfruitful tendency. These tours-de-force of taste, and DEAD ARRANGEMENTS BY THE TASTEFUL HAND WITHOUT, not instinctive organisations by the living will within, are too inactive and uninventive for our northern climates, and the same objections can be made to them as to Matisse DECORATION … The whole of the modern movement, then, is, we maintain, under a cloud. That cloud is the exquisite and accomplished, but discouraged, sentimental and inactive, personality of Picasso. We must disinculpate ourselves of Picasso at once.”

Lewis put his finger astutely on the essential banality of the form-content of the School of Paris, preoccupied with “the debris of their rooms” rather than “changing our common life”. (It was essentially the same criticism he would make of James Joyce: revolutionary technique, but wrapped around Victorian content.) To the end of his days he maintained and elaborated this critique, identifying Picasso as a pasticheur, but technically impressive to the extent that he threatened to become “a stultifying obsession”.

And what an obsession! The far-sightedness of Lewis’ position is evidenced by our need, even today, to query Clark’s unthinkingly hand-me-down narrative of Modernism. But that narrative moved on. If Lewis, in his “safe Soho Bohème”, exemplifies for Clark a phoney Picasso-ism, where is the real stuff, the “serious engagement”? Why, with Gorky, de Kooning and the New York School, he informs us. In this so-familiar construction, the torch of authenticity is handed across the Atlantic circa 1939, and we slip from Modernism according to Bloomsbury to Modernism according to Clement Greenberg.

What a very passive and old fashioned account this is! Strikingly so from such a reputed Bad Boy of Art History. This is the canon of the Cold War, and an imperialist canon. It’s about time we were Leaving the Twentieth Century, and in particular leaving behind the art-historical orthodoxies of the ‘sixties.