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: Damien Hirst

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.

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Snaps of mortality

Here’s a few odd things that turned up around corners on our recent trip up North. Even if I have a camera with me when I’m away, in the event I too often end up using my phone, though at times it gives a sort of pleasing phone-y quality, especially in black and white. (Click for slides and click lower right of the slide for full size.)

1: Wystan in Derbyshire

Who stands, the crux left of the watershed,
On the wet road between the chafing grass
Below him sees dismantled washing-floors,
Snatches of tramline running to the wood,
An industry already comatose,
Yet sparsely living. A ramshackle engine
at Cashwell raises water …

The boy W H Auden’s fascination with industrial dereliction was stimulated partly by, among other things, a holiday in Derbyshire, and the landscape of the lead mining areas contributes to the decaying backdrop of some of his earlier work. Here, by the side of the Cromford canal, are one or two abandoned buildings and the Leawood pumphouse.

 

2: Barbara in Sheffield

Spotted in the womens’ wear at John Lewis’s in Sheffield: Hepworth’s Writings and Conversations roped in as a signifier of  “Modern Rarity”, the flower arrangements in the cover image cunningly extended into the display. As prices of Hepworths continue to spiral beyond all sanity, Barbara herself, in trademark beret and stripey top, is now employed by Lewis’s as a “national treasure”, at least of a northern sort, it being not too far from Wakefield here.

 

3: Damien and Lucian

And on to Chatsworth, the simply too, too large residence of the Devonshires, for the eyeball-bashing “House Style” fashion and costume exhibition, knowingly curated as a stately spectacle of shameless excess. Dramatically subdued lighting made it difficult in places actually to see much of the clothes or to work out what it was that one was unable to see, not that the elbowing crowds of tablet snappers seemed too bothered. In one vast room, housing an elevated, candle-lit, Fellinian parade of sepulchral wedding dresses, I felt a little sorry for the Damien Hirst at the far end, on loan from Sotheby’s but now unable to hold its own against the invading weight of all the other kitsch. (An oversized gilded Saint Bartholomew, holding aloft his flayed skin, this is nicked from Vesalius, as all Hirst’s ideas are nicked.)

It was a relief to struggle out of the sumptuous vampiric gloom to find myself in a small, overlooked, sunlit corner hung with half a dozen Freuds, various Devonshires having trooped off to have themselves done by family friend Lucian in the ‘sixties. After all the spotlit satins, baubles and feathers, what a welcome dose of honesty! The upper classes as they are, beneath the costumes – saggy, vexed, irritable, bored, anonymous. Just people, in fact. The baby has a worrying quality of elderliness, as if Freud had seen in his or her features the sufferings of the adult to come. Now there’s a lesson in mortality that Hirst, a successful dealer in attractive surfaces, just can’t match.

 

4: Poor Keith

Another passed-over piece of corridor holds a sampling from the archive of Jorge Lewinski artist photos purchased by Chatsworth. Among the familiar faces I noticed the less familiar one of Keith Vaughan, photographed by Lewinski in 1963. Set against the company of his life sized young men, all hard edged, vigorous and assured, he himself seems ill at ease, poorly defined, subdued, resentful, as if the stick and the stool are there to give him something to do with his hands and feet. Or perhaps as if instructed, a bit too cleverly, to mimic the pose of the central figure, generating an unhappy irony. It’s too easy, of course, knowing of his suicide in 1977, to read suffering into any image of Vaughan, but looking at this, while admiring the painter one can’t help feeling for the man.

Letting Go of Uncertainty: Damien Hirst at Walsall

A trip to Walsall yesterday for a running repair to my hearing aids gave an opportunity to drop in at the New Art Gallery (after a jumbo hot dog from the Mr Sizzle van outside – “Lunch for £1”) to take a look at Damien Hirst’s year long intervention in the Garman Ryan collection. (Only six months to go …)

Sacred Heart

Sacred Heart

Young Damien has seriously knuckled under to the current vogue for “curation”, and is left with little to do but arrange readymades – anatomical models, sea shells – on shelves. He has become essentially a collector of pills, butterflies and other curiosities, which has always been his real vocation, I suppose. His ideal job would probably be in a small museum, except that museums no longer consist of shelves of objects or cases of stuffed animals, having been stripped down to big graphics and interactive doodahs. The museum that Hirst, Cornelia Parker and others yearn to re-create is a childhood memory of a museum – a museum of museums.

Wounds of Christ

Wounds of Christ

At the same time, Hirst seems completely unable to let go of the Christian iconography that he constantly references, whether in his New Religion series (especially the superbly beautiful The Sacred Heart of Jesus and the surprisingly reverential The Wounds of Christ) or in his formaldehyded lost sheep or Lamb of God (Away from the Flock). The former are not at Walsall, but the sheep, looking a little off colour, is there to greet the visitor. Hirst may imagine that he’s critiquing, kitsching or pastiching Christianity in a naughty boy way, but we know better. Whatever his intentions, such images don’t debase the Christian narrative – they revive and inculturate it. I’ll give it ten years maximum for Sir Damien OBE to convert into a practising Roman Catholic.

Meanwhile, upstairs, a dozen Walsall College students, under the banner of “Let Go of Certainty,” have been roped in to “curate” a roomful of vaguely Hirst-themed pieces about life, death, er, the universe and stuff, drawn from the permanent collection. They’ve chosen quite well, but good grief, what’s this “Certainty” they want us to let go of? We’ve all lived with paradox and multi-POV ambiguity for so long now that no one can remember what certainty was. I’m afraid they’re well behind the curve here. What we want today is freedom from Uncertainty.

Enough of “convergences”, of art that “explores”, “is concerned with” or “makes reference to”. Enough squishy flux. Enough indifference. Enough cheap grace. Enough of this post-modern timelessness that is merely the commodification of Eternity.

We’re in need of the hardness of ice, of dogma, of direct touch: Pain, Holy Defiance in the face of tragic extra-personal reality, Mystery, Sacrament, Redemption, the Terrible Beauty of Resurrection, the Hope of Anarchy. And other things that seem to demand Capital Letters.

Speaking of capital letters, the Walsall Gallery is STILL in thrall to the parasitic resident interventions of “Bob and Roberta Smith” (Patrick Brill) that clutter the Garman Ryan rooms. His most recent reflection on the Epstein Archive is an insulting and slatternly “sculpture” of Epstein’s son, the painter Theodore Garman, whacked together in five minutes out of offcuts of firewood, and resembling neither Theo Garman nor anything that might qualify as sculpture. When Jacob Epstein confronts Mr Brill in the afterlife, he will probably want to kick his bottom for this.