Richard Warren

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

Tag Archives: C R W Nevinson

The noble vision of John Currie

A trip to Stoke (up Hanley duck, specifically) has reminded me of the wealth of stuff at the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery, not least the jaw dropping collection of British ceramics and a chunk of the Staffordshire Hoard. And currently in pride of place in the art rooms is John Currie’s marvellous The Supper, dated to 1912-14.

the supper

Dollie Henry as 'The Witch'

Dollie Henry as ‘The Witch’

Potteries-born Currie, trained as a ceramics decorator, was a little older than his fellow “new primitive” Slade painters Mark Gertler, Richard Nevinson, Edward Wadsworth, Adrian Allinson and Stanley Spencer. (“Primitive” in the Italianate sense, that is.) His volatile and disturbed relationship with model and mistress Dollie Henry collapsed into nightmare in October 1914 when he shot her dead and turned his gun on himself. Mark Gertler, his close friend and himself a later suicide, was deeply traumatised by this tragedy. No monograph on Currie has yet been done, but his story was covered in Sarah MacDougall’s 2002 biography of Gertler, passing into David Boyd Haycock’s popular A Crisis of Brilliance. Among Currie’s stately female portraits, which are on the whole very close in temperament to Gertler’s, is The Witch, an unmistakable image of flame haired Dollie; superficially, this carries mere sexist charm, but on more careful consideration the attraction-repulsion projected into the face is psychologically troubled.

'Some Later Primitives and Madame Tisceron.' Left to right: Currie, Gertler, Nevinson, Wadsworth, Allinson.

‘Some Later Primitives and Madame Tisceron.’ Left to right: Currie, Gertler, Nevinson, Wadsworth, Allinson.

Over two dozen Curries survive in public collections, mostly at the Potteries, which could furnish a room full, and should, but doesn’t. His work touches the trends of its day: a bit of Brittany, some soft cubism, post-Impressionist colourings, and so on. But the group angularities, diagonals and rhythms of The Supper are aligned with the human abstractions of Bomberg and Roberts, and suggest the way Currie might have travelled had he survived.

Self portrait, 1905

Self portrait, 1905

It is a noble vision of the coming Kingdom. There is a strong hint of the Last Supper in the group around the table at the back, not least the Jesus-ish features of the central figure to the top left of the head of the dark haired woman in the foreground; are she and her blonde companion meant for Mary and Martha? This is society as common-wealth, as table, as agape, but agape here comprehends eros; the embracing couple at lower right seem intended for Dollie and Currie. This is the way things could be, could have been, but were not and are not. We are invited to trust that it is the way they will be.

John Turnbull: English Aeropittura

What is known about John Armstrong Turnbull, ex-Royal Flying Corps observer and pilot, who made what appears to have been a very brief artistic career exhibiting with the ex-Vorticists and others in “Group X” in 1920? It’s clear that Wyndham Lewis had a high regard for his work, and one can see why from this painting, Air Fight of 1919, done for the Beaverbrook war artist programme, and now in the Canadian War Museum. This is wonderfully complex, and rather spikier than Nevinson’s war planes of the same era. It belongs (despite its lack of sub-cubist spatial fragmentation) up there with the later aeropittura of il secondo futurismo – Dottori, Crali etc. “Airman Turnbull vanished with the same jet-like speed with which he had flown in upon us,” recalled William Roberts in 1957. But to where did he vanish? And where’s the rest of his work?

“British Masters”, presented by James Fox, BBC 4, Monday 11 July, episode 1

Dear Dr Fox

After watching the first instalment of “British Masters” I felt I really must thank you for guiding me through the nightmare tangle of early modernism. Let me see if I’ve got it right:

Gertler = good chap; Sickert = bit trad but good chap; Lewis = incredibly evil; Bomberg = good chap + working class hero; Marinetti = great big charlatan; Nevinson = teeny tiny charlatan; Nash = bit wet at first but also good chap; Spencer = another good chap.

I think that’s about it. It all makes so much more sense put like that. Audaciously truncated biog’s, easy-to-grasp ad hominem judgements, and no fuzzy theory or context to make things unnecessarily complicated – I really admired how you saw off Marinetti without once using the word “Futurist”, which left plenty of time for your own mildly spirited rendition of “Zang Tumb Tumb”. (You need to work on that a bit, but full marks for being brave and having a go!) In the end, some cloudy background notions of general-modernity or loss-of-empire are all we really need, aren’t they? I shall be recommending this approach to my A Level History of Art students; it will save them much time and trouble.

My students will also find particularly helpful your ground-breaking “light bulb moment” theory of artistic development – Gertler staring at roundabout; Lewis staring at tall building; Bomberg staring at swimming pool; Nash staring at holes in the ground; Sickert staring at body of (allegedly) murdered prostitute etc etc.

Admittedly, no single statement of yours about Lewis (fascist, misogynist, jew-hater, biographer of Hitler, machine age dystopian) was actually quite on target. But why let facts spoil a great soundbite? And what a televisual clincher to thrust his pickled brain at the camera as evidence – and “scientific” evidence, at that – of his dreadful “poisonous mind”!

Whoever commissioned this is to be commended for their judicious use of license payers’ money.  Will there be a book on the back of the series? Or maybe even a board game? I can’t wait.

Yours etc
Richard Warren

Dear Richard,

I’m very sad to hear you didn’t enjoy the programme last night. It was intended to appeal to all kinds of viewers, from those who had no interest in art to those, like you, who clearly do. I obviously failed to convince you! I can make excuses (an allocation of c. 10 minutes for a whole artist does not allow for much detail — how I would have loved to do a whole series on each of them!), but  I will not try to change your mind on that front. I do, however, hope that you will accept that what I was doing was not art history in the scholarly sense. Nor was an academic methodology being proposed. This was a television programme, and my goal was simply to celebrate the lives and work of a group of artists I love in as entertaining and memorable way as possible.

Yours,
James

Dear James

Thanks for your measured reply – appreciated, given that I put the boot in. I don’t wish to drag this out into a prolonged exchange, you’ll be pleased to know. But quickly –

You say “not art history in the scholarly sense”. But that’s just it. Too much of it wasn’t art history in any sense. Is it not possible to be entertaining and memorable for a non-specialist audience without snipping and distorting the facts of the matter into shapes well beyond caricature – i.e. into actual untruths? And how does doing that honour or respect the artists you say you “love”?

I’ll leave it at that.

Yours,
Richard