Richard Warren

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

Tag Archives: John Berger

The Mad Artist Gerald Wilde

Wilde sketching in 1954

Wilde sketching in 1954

In the chapter on Gerald Wilde in his Memoirs of the Forties, writer and poseur Julian Maclaren-Ross tells a fine story of the poetry impresario Tambimuttu making collections of money and food in the pubs and cafés of Fitzrovia “for Gerald Wilde the Mad Artist, he’s starving and with no money, you know?” Meanwhile the hapless Mad Artist is locked in Tambi’s flat with instructions to produce enough paintings for a show. Predictably, the money and the leftovers never reach Wilde. But then the paintings are never delivered either, Wilde – “by now presumably paint-stained and ravenous” – smashing his way out of Tambimuttu’s flat, taking with him the contents of the bookshelves to sell to buy food.

The arrival on the Warren doormat of a copy of Gerald Wilde 1905-1986, the October Gallery 1988 Wilde show booklet, provides a fresh acquaintance with the Mad Artist. David Sylvester’s introduction points out that at Wilde’s 1948 one man show at the prestigious Hanover Gallery not one work was bought. Likewise, a lithograph commissioned in 1956 sold, from an edition of 100, not a single copy. Beyond this slim booklet, there is no monograph on Wilde, nor has any museum ever curated a show of his work.

Piccadilly Circus 1946

Piccadilly Circus 1946

Sylvester observes that the 1948 sale did not include his best pieces, because “he had sold too many off as he went along, sold them off for next to nothing so as to get some money to buy drink or to give away to strangers in the pub or, literally, to burn, when he chose to demonstrate his independence by throwing the contents of his wallet on the fire.” Maclaren-Ross recalls that Wilde would “simply give [his paintings] to any bystander who showed appreciation, which he once said gave him a feeling of being liberated.” But Sylvester also notes that Wilde’s work, perhaps at its peak in the late ‘forties, was simply “too tough, too demanding, too far ahead of its time” to sell.

The Alarm 1947

The Alarm 1947

The plates reveal that Wilde’s lithographs of the late ‘twenties were technically accomplished and quirkily observational. But by the ‘forties he had evolved the slack but scrunchy abstract expressionism (idiosyncratic and entirely un-American) for which he is best known, the later work becoming flatter, more cartoony, more Jungian. Frank Auerbach is maybe a point of contact, but only obliquely. Perhaps also Alan Davie, at least the earlier, messier stuff. Spiritually, Wilde was closest perhaps to the spontaneism of the CoBrA group – certainly a better fit than William Gear, the official CoBrA Brit, whose tasteful abstractions have always seemed a bit contrived to me.

The Tomb 1948

The Tomb 1948

An appreciation by William Feaver sees “no indication of artistic ambition” as “one of the strengths of Wilde’s work,” which “conforms to no professional demands or guidelines,” and “evade[s] expectation.” This uncompromising stand is very Gulley Jimson, though it’s generally recognised that Wilde could not have been the model for the reprobate painter of Joyce Cary’s 1944 novel The Horse’s Mouth, given that Cary only met Wilde five years later. But meanwhile in Jimson Wilde had recognised himself.

The booklet contains several photos of Wilde, and one sees that Alec Guinness’s Jimson, in the film of the novel, while no impersonation, was maybe a relation. In some photos Wilde appears happy, but in others his eyes have the thousand yard stare of a man who has just woken to find himself, as he put it, living in purgatory.

Which is a little unnerving, given that he had lost the use of his left eye in a childhood accident. These paintings were made by a partially sighted artist. And in fact many of them do seem to snap into view when stared at with one eye closed. The monoscopic reduction in sharpness washes out the harsh edges of some of the looser strokes, melding splatches of paint into a continuous entity, and allowing the brain to process, interpret and inhabit the image more comfortably.

wildeComing to terms with a Wilde is always challenging. But hardly as challenging as it was for him to make it, we feel. Some works, particularly quick pastel or charcoal drawings, seem tentative or throwaway. The more substantial pieces seem sometimes to have been wrestled onto the surface, lines and shapes whacked around until something with conviction, but still quite alien, starts to appear. Though the images may be in that sense resolved, they are not reconciled to us; there remains a “wrongness” that, as in the best “Outsider” art, takes us to somewhere beyond, a wrongness that is ultimately right.

Writing in 1955, John Berger saw the heavy black lines of Wilde’s paintings as a grate, or as the bars of a zoo cage: “… he paints the gates (again the iron bars) on the very perimeter of the Conscious, beyond which is all the raw material which, when it is brought inside, is fashioned into our ideas of heaven and hell.” Maclaren-Ross also saw the cage: “Perhaps it was the vision of his own interior chaos that was struggling to break through the cryptic coloured patterns that enclosed it, as he had broken out of Tambi’s flat.”

“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.