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: David Bomberg

The darker side of Sonny

Theodore Garman at work

Theodore Garman at work

The New Art Gallery at Walsall is currently showing off its new Auerbach – a version of To the Studios from 1983, once owned by Lucien Freud, and now at Walsall via the Accepted in Lieu tax scheme. And here it is. In my humble opinion it’s not quite his best – a bit muddy and muddled in the middle – but still worth showing off, of course.

What Walsall rarely shows off are two fine Auerbach-ish works they already have by a less known painter on whom they hold a virtual monopoly – Jacob Epstein’s son Theodore Garman. Find him on the Art UK site and 23 paintings come up, all but one at Walsall.

'The Blue Girl' 1948

‘The Blue Girl’ 1948

Theo Garman, born in 1924, was Epstein’s son by his partner Kathleen Garman, though Epstein never publicly acknowledged the relationship. Due to his cheerful childhood disposition he was known as “Sonny”, but in his adult years he suffered grievously from depression, and was given a disputed diagnosis of schizophrenia. Later, as his instability deepened, he required considerable care from his mother Kathleen. As a painter he moved in an artistic environment, but was essentially a self-taught loner, admiring Matisse and Matthew Smith but dismissive of “the Sutherland-Piper-Moore claptrap”.

Exhibitions at the Redfern in 1950 and 1952 were applauded, Matthew Smith expressing “wonder, admiration, and even astonishment”; Wyndham Lewis, always an acute critic in The Listener, was more wisely measured, finding himself “overwhelmed by a rancid vegetation, tropically gigantic,” but judging nevertheless that Garman’s painterly vitality “assures this artist of a high place among his contemporaries.”

GrayThere’s no denying that the so-so landscapes and still lives of Garman’s earlier years had toughened up admirably by the late ‘forties, and his Matissean looseness had become more of a freedom than a weakness. Jennifer Gray, whose M Phil thesis on Garman sits unpublished in Walsall’s archives, but who authored the 2004 booklet on him, speculates that “his illness, far from inhibiting his creativity, may have enhanced it, allowing him to be liberated and able to explore new ideas and techniques.” Maybe so, though one wishes to avoid slipping into the suffering genius narrative here.

The two late paintings that best exemplify this late development are The Old Forge Chelsea I and II, produced in 1953, shortly before Garman’s tragic and early death. In these his deepening impasto is matched with tangled, angular, linear shapes and rich, dark, dense colours, reminiscent of Auerbach and Leon Kossoff and of their teacher David Bomberg. Auerbach and Kossoff were still students in 1953, and I’m not aware of any direct connections here, but it certainly looks as if Garman had had second thoughts about some aspects of modernist style.

The Old Forge, Chelsea I

The Old Forge, Chelsea I

These two paintings are in the care of Walsall but are part of the Beth Lipkin collection, rather than the Garman Ryan, and are infrequently shown. A pity. (Click on images to enlarge.)

The Old Forge, Chelsea II

The Old Forge, Chelsea II

In January 1954 Garman, in something of a disturbed state, borrowed a small statue for a still life from Chelsea School of Art and was promptly accused of stealing it. The police were called. Stephen Gardiner’s 1992 biography of Epstein gives a bare but careful account of what happened next: Kathleen, to prevent his arrest, arranged for his hospital admission, but when the ambulance arrived Theodore, thinking himself kidnapped, was overwhelmed by panic and died of a heart attack while struggling with the male nurses after injections of sedative. He was 29 years old. Despite an anonymous letter to the police complaining of “the barbarous manner in which he was virtually hounded to death” the coroner’s jury returned a verdict of death from natural causes. Later the same year Theo’s sister Esther committed suicide.

In an appendix to her rather gushy 2004 boho-romp The Rare and the Beautiful. The Lives of the Garmans, Cressida Connolly rakes over the circumstances and their associated rumours, but in the process discovers precious little.

It’s too easy to suggest that the dark angularity of these paintings is somehow expressive of Garman’s suffering or reflects the appalling tragedy that overtook the family. But the two works do seem to indicate a deepened and more complex sensibility, and may suggest something of what Garman might have gone on to achieve and sustain if he had lived. Today he is largely forgotten, his “high place among his contemporaries” sadly unassured.

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A couple of Vorticist angles

Following my previous post and new page on Cuthbert Hamilton, a couple more scraps relating to the Great English Vortex …

Helen Saunders, ‘Study for The Island of Laputa’ © Estate of Helen Saunders

In 1969 the d’Offay Couper Gallery put on Abstract Art in England 1913-1915, which claimed to be the first attempt since 1915 to display a comprehensive collection of Vorticist work. I’ve just acquired a copy of the catalogue, which reveals that the show was surprisingly rich, if a bit Bomberg-heavy. It also allows me to make a couple of small amendments to my “galleries” for Helen Saunders and Lawrence Atkinson (tabs above) by adding images of Saunders’s study for The Island of Laputa, and of the original version of Atkinson’s very beautiful Vital.

Lawrence Atkinson, ‘Vital’

In 1969 Dorothy Shakespear and Kate Lechmere (among others associated with the movement) were still alive. Blimey. But then, 1969 was only four years after the mid point between 1915 and now. And, as it says in BLAST 1, the Future is distant, like the Past, and therefore sentimental.

Meanwhile, it’s been two years since we looked in on the prolific craftsmanship of eBay seller Raymond of Mortlake, aka “mortlakeunion2009”, who is still feverishly banging out pastiches of Vorticist works, as well tackling the cubisms of Leger, Marcoussis, Popova, Gleizes and a dozen more, and who shows no signs of fatigue. (See previous posts here and here.) In his six years on eBay, Raymond has racked up nearly 1500 sales of paintings and drawings, often in batches to repeat buyers Europe-wide. Feedback shows that 99% are happy with what they know full well to be fakes, though in a few cases the penny seems to have dropped after the event:

“Too new for Saunders, but a nice composition in her style”

“art works are fake, reported to ebay”

“The watercolour was sticked on a carton with a sticked frame. Good for trash”

“faux authentique. Attention !”

“Foot[sic] tooth and nail to avoid giving a refund for substandard workds[sic]. Avoid”

“bad imitation, fake and FALSE PAINTING on cardboard modern replica”

(To this last, Mortlake has responded in bristling self-defence: “PAINTED ON OLD PAPER AND ATTACHED TO MODERN CARDBOARD”.)

Among the many hundreds of positives, one buyer has commented, apparently without a trace of irony, “love this sellers detailed provenance”.

I imagine Raymond perhaps as an embittered shop steward of the Communication Workers’ Union or TGWU (both have offices in Mortlake), burning away the midnight hours cranking out his decorative fakes as an act of social revenge. Or perhaps not. But anyway, here are a few more of his old Vorts, and some newer ones, just for the record or just for fun … (Click for slide show.)

David Bomberg


William Roberts


Wyndham Lewis

 

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.

More crap Vorticist forgeries

My post of July 14 drew attention to the renewed appearance on eBay of decorative fakes of Vorticist artworks, mostly  by a single seller. He or she has since gone into overdrive, today’s browse turning up 25 new items by “followers of” Wyndham Lewis, David Bomberg and William Roberts. All are signed, though none are dated; all are described as a “deceased estate purchase”, and all are offered by London seller mortlakeunion2009 at prices up to £50. Just for the record, I show them here – click on thumbnails for the galleries. Similar items are offered by Laura Knight, Henry Moore and Mark Gertler, plus assorted Russian and Czech modernists, some at rather higher figures. Young Mortlake seems to be doing quite well with his/her artwork judging by his/her feedback, which shows multiple sales to a number of buyers, though the identities of items sold are nearly all blanked out on the feedback list. Buyers are presumably bottom end “art dealers” who sell this stuff onwards at a profit – though at this standard why don’t they just bang out their own and cut out the wholesaler?


The first Lewis here (above) is a re-run of the composition shown in my earlier post. The pasticheur has got a little of the jizz of 1914 Lewis, leaving some pen lines open ended or taking them fractionally beyond intersections, and being careful not to erase too much of the pencil under-drawing. But the compositions are hardly dynamic, tight or coherent, some whole sections being sliced off by grossly extended diagonal or horizontal lines that are not at all integrated. Some areas of watercolour are carelessly edged, and the use of three stripes occasionally has more of the feel of Adidas than of the Vortex. Even so, the Lewises are perhaps the best of the bunch.


The Bombergs (above) are far less successful, appearing clumsy and unknowing. This is particularly true of the first shown here, as well as the two superficial attempts at Ju-Jitsu type compositions where the faker has completely failed to understand the structural processes as discussed in my recent post on Vorticism and quilting. The final Bomberg shown here is a composition that doubles as two of the Roberts imitations (below), while a third Roberts re-employs many of the same motifs. The first, more figure-based, Roberts is a direct but very hesitant copy of his 1913 Study for a Nativity.


One could say more, but these hardly deserve the discussion. Though at least they are a tad better than the same seller’s lumpy attempts at Laura Knight drawings, which have to be seen to be disbelieved.

Vorticism and quilting

Being averagely blokey, I’ll admit to a degree of resistance to the Kirstie-ish world of quilting. But when my wife recently dragged me through the doors of the York Quilt Museum, I was pleasantly converted. The main exhibition, till the end of this month, is “The Blossoming of Patchwork”, a hugely impressive display of British patchwork quilts and coverlets from the 1780’s to the 1820’s. Their instinctive good judgement puts to shame the neighbouring small show of 1990’s pieces, which, in sad contrast, manage somehow to combine overly brash colouring with a new-agey cheesiness.

One historical piece that made me think twice was a large quilt made up of half-square triangles, their sizes doubling in stages towards the margins. No image of this seems to be available online, but here’s a modern quilt based on roughly the same scheme, with a smaller triangle piece from the York collection that will give the approximate idea:

modern trianglestriangles

Are we looking here at the genesis of David Bomberg’s extraordinary 1913-14 paintings Ju-Jitsu and In the Hold? Perhaps not, given that there seems to have been no tradition of patchwork quilting among the working class Jewish communities in which Bomberg was raised. On the other hand, the similarity is striking, and an actual convergence of craft and early modernism did take place during these precise years in the productions of the Omega Workshop and the Rebel Art Centre, with which Bomberg would have been familiar, though not directly involved.

Ju-Jitsu

Ju-Jitsu

In the Hold

In the Hold

Images of the studies for the two paintings, in Richard Cork’s 1988 Tate catalogue of Bomberg, show exactly the same grids pencilled in. Not surprising, given that this type of squaring up has long been a standard method of enlargement from the study to the canvas, and Bomberg had employed it previously. What is surprising is that, in the process of drawing up Ju-Jitsu, he clearly had the breakthrough idea of incorporating the grid into the final composition. Both grids divide the composition into quarters, sub-divide into 64 and then insert the diagonals, halving the squares in the case of Ju-Jitsu, and quartering them for the more complex In the Hold. Of the two, Ju-Jitsu resembles better the quilt pattern, being similarly divided into squares and half-square triangles, as opposed to the rectangles and quarter triangles of In the Hold. If Bomberg had seen this sort of patchwork, it may well have suggested to him the idea of making visible the triangular grid by alternating the tones of adjacent triangles. The logical next step was to counter-change the tones within the triangles to reveal the figures.

Despite the visual impact of In the Hold, it’s possible that Bomberg concluded that this technique, with such a complex image, decomposed legibility too far; he did not use it for his next major piece The Mud Bath of 1914, nor for any subsequent work, though the study for The Mud Bath is similarly gridded.

Billings coverlet

Billings coverlet

At their best, the 18th and 19th century designs on show at York balance a formal and mathematical approach to composition with a random approach to colour and tone. Perhaps not exactly random, given that the maker must consciously select each piece of fabric, but certainly allowing for an element of chance. The Billings coverlet of 1805-10, justly the centrepiece of the show, exemplifies this: the tones of the positive shapes show no regular repetition within the precise construction, so that intellect and instinct are beautifully combined here, giving the piece a sort of classical but vernacular nobility.

crazy 1crazy 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But by the early 20th century formality and symmetry were no longer obligatory, as revealed by examples of the irregular “crazy” patchwork style in the Museum’s Heritage Collection. All of these are dated to the first two or three decades of the century. It can only have been the impact of cubism, no doubt filtered through English Vorticism, that made permissable such a revolution in patchwork design.

Some crap Vorticist forgeries

Hardly a revelation that enterprising eBayers have hit on modernist art as a rewarding field for forgery; after all, if a child of five could do that, it should be simple enough for you and me. And so the eBay art listings are spammed to overflowing with drawings by Picasso, Cocteau etc, “in the manner of” or simply sans provenance, a few with a hint of skill, but most hilariously inept. (Though Lowry is a gift for the amateur pasticheur, given that he did draw like a five year old. Fake Lowries probably outnumber all the rest put together.) It’s doubtful that buyers are fooled any longer; more that they hope that their friends might be fooled when they see it on the wall.

Fancy a Bomberg for £50? Vorticism looks a doddle, given that all you need is a sharp pencil and a decent ruler. I’ve noticed these four in recent weeks (click on them to enlarge) – a “Bomberg” drawing and oil, a “Saunders” watercolour and a “Lewis” drawing. The “Bomberg” drawing wouldn’t fool the mythical five year old, but the other three – all by the same hand, as the digital gold frames indicate – show a superficial familiarity with their targets. But the babyish primary colours of the “Saunders” hardly do justice to her skill as a colourist, and the composition, which attempts to employ her typical boxed shapes, is neither dynamic nor convincing. The “Lewis” pastiches some familiar shapes in the lower half, but the composition unravels towards the top, where shapes fight against the general movement. In the “Bomberg” oil, positive and negative shapes seem oddly out of proportion with each other. One could go on. Hah! Not quite so easy, is it?

With such weaknesses, are these remotely dangerous? You wouldn’t think so, but looking at what some top auction houses get away with these days …

(More Vorticist forgeries in the follow up here.)

“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