Richard Warren

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Tag Archives: Joyce Cary

‘The language of a world where meanings defeated any common syntax’: Joyce Cary meets Gerald Wilde

As an addendum to my previous post on the painter Gerald Wilde (go here), I give you the best part of an article on Wilde by Joyce Cary, author of The Horse’s Mouth and creator of the incorrigible, penniless and visionary painter Gulley Jimson, with whom Wilde fiercely identified.

nimbusThis appeared in Vol 3 No 2 (1956) of Nimbus, the literary review created by Tristram Hull, and edited at the time by him and David Wright. I’ve omitted the more general passages where Cary expands on the issue of artistic originality and so forth, which, to be honest, are pretty skippable. This piece is not excerpted in the 1988 October Gallery monograph on Wilde, and I don’t see it online, so here we are. Included here are the four illustrations: a fine photo of Wilde by Gilbert Cousland, and three black and whites of Wilde paintings, one then owned by Cary.

Here, Cary’s startling characterisation is of an artist as a complete original, beyond tradition, outside all context, and so an apparition, a revenant, a dweller in another world. One wonders how Wilde felt, reading about himself as a rattling spectre … But it’s a fine piece of writing, about a great and neglected painter. The Art UK site now shows just five paintings by Wilde in public collections, two owned by Oxford colleges. It’s better than none.

(Throughout the original, oddly, Gulley is spelt as “Gully,” which I’ve corrected. A note on personalities mentioned – the Davins: Dan and Win Davin. Dan Davin, author, then working for Oxford UP. Winnie Davin was Cary’s close friend and literary executor. Ronnie Syme: Ronald Syme, classicist and historian, then at Brasenose, Oxford. Father Gervase Matthews: Gervase Mathew[sic], Dominican theologian, Oxford lecturer.)

 

JOYCE CARY

GERALD WILDE

The first time I met Gerald Wilde was, I think, about 1949, in Oxford, at the Davins’. It was late in the evening. There was a crowd of people in the room, Ronnie Syme, the historian, was one, and I think Louis MacNeice was another, certainly I know I was sitting by the fire conversing on some historical matter with Father Gervase Matthews, when I heard a queer noise and saw in the middle of the room, a figure strange even in that gathering place of poets and professors, of dreamers in all dimensions.

Gerald Wilde

Gerald Wilde

At first glance, in the dim light, Wilde seemed like a spectre. His long, dead-white face with its hollow cheeks was like a mask of bleached skin on a skull, his arms seemed but bones, hanging loosely in the sleeves of an enormous coat whose crumpled folds gave no room for flesh. The arms, too, were extremely long, so that the bony hands almost touched the floor. It was as if this skeleton had but half risen from the grave.

All this figure was in violent and continuous agitation, and with a movement that seemed by itself preternatural. It was this shivering, shaking which, more than anything, gave, at the moment, the sense of visitation from another world. Ghosts in fiction are still dignified appearances, they either stand still like Hamlet’s father, or they glide; only Giselle is allowed feet, but as she flies, she trails them like a bird. The spirits of books and plays are imagined to exist in white robes whose folds must not be disarranged even by the most tragic emotion. They are like the aesthetic ladies of the eighties who had no waists and who were not permitted even to die except in a liberty pose.

'Head' 1952, oils

‘Head’ 1952, oil

But how much more fearfully ghostly was this apparition that shook in every joint, whose enormous pale eyes were full of an excitement equally extravagant – whose very words sounded like the language of a world where meanings defeated any common syntax.

Startled, I began to get up. I could not make out what was happening, or if Wilde was speaking to me, only that he was staring at me and his stare was urgent. But at the same moment, he flung out his arms and plunged forward, knocking over a table of glasses and bottles with a crash which seemed to astonish and bewilder him. He stood gazing at the floor.

Win Davin then jumped up, touched his arm, and he went out with her. She came back in a moment, laughing, and said that Wilde had gone to bed. The broken glass was swept up, the carpet mopped, and the party went on as if nothing had happened; that is to say, in a general murmur of conversation which had no more reference to Wilde’s event than the rustle of garden leaves to a firework.

I had been ready to think the man drunk, but afterwards, when I was going away, Win Davin assured me that he was stone sober. The stare, the trembling, the strange sounds which resembled speech to the ear but not to the mind, were due simply to the shock of the unexpected, and a clash of ideas all insisting on immediate expression.

'Rocky Landscape' 1949, oil

‘Rocky Landscape’ 1949, oil

Wilde was a painter who thought of himself as a Gulley Jimson in the world, and seeing me unexpectedly, he wanted to explain, all at once, his feelings about the book, about Gulley, about the relations of artist and public.

Since then, he has talked to me on all these matters, with the detached tentative air rather of polite conversation than obsession. He has, by nature, gentle manners, a soft voice, he is eager to agree with you – he has no idea of cutting a dash with startling opinions; he says what he believes, and what is true, and what is true is always a platitude.

We would agree quietly that a really original artist is never popular; that he always has had, and will have, a long fight for recognition; he is lucky to get it in his lifetime.

It is true that Wilde’s position resembles that of Gulley Jimson. In the trilogy, Wilshire is the conservative broken by the creative revolution; Gulley is the original creator defeated by conservatism. Gulley was an original artist and that means that he had no school, that he was alone.

'Figures in Arches' 1930-49, gouache

‘Figures in Arches’ 1930-49, gouache

I do not mean by an original artist one who turns out variations of Picasso, Mondrian, Klee, Kandinsky, thirty or forty years after the prototypes. Imitators get plenty of appreciation. Critics are used to them and are not afraid to analyse and compare their works.

It is the painter who does not imitate, who is a true creator, who will have a long fight for recognition …   [ … ]

I have often thought how true to the fact was that first apparition to me of Gerald Wilde, in the Davins’ sitting-room; he seemed like a revenant from another world of spirits, and so he was. He came to us out of a dream that he could not even describe, or explain – he could only paint it. For such a world, that realm where the original visual artist lives as naturally as we in our familiar conventions, is so alien to that of the judgement, of the critical reason, that judgement and reason themselves are barriers about it. A painter like Wilde is born to his own visionary dimension, and it is one necessarily so alien to his contemporaries, that it is equally hard for them to conceive it, or for him to describe it. [ … ]

I have lived now for some years with Wilde pictures, and I can vouch for the force of the novelty. And their impact is that of an original, a great art.

By an original art I mean one that adds to my visual imagination, a new dimension; by a great art, one that moves greatly and profoundly. [ … ]

You cannot classify Wilde’s art. It is not representative; and neither is it abstract. It conveys the most powerful impressions by means of form and colour of which the relation is not so much to an actual world of objects as to the real world of fundamental and universal experience.

I cannot explain what I feel before the grand and strange complex of Wilde’s Rocky Landscape, of his Green Seascape, of the landscape that he has never named, that I call the Woman on the Shore, or his Creature. But for me they belong emphatically to the category of great art. And they are profoundly original.

Kurt thoughts: Britters in Schwitain

From notes made on my way round the Schwitters in Britain show at Tate Britain:

Constant tensions between colour and texture, forms and references.

Colour – So much brown! But the landscapes and portraits too, even in the skin tones, appear predominantly brown. Seems regressive – the dull cubist palette of Picasso & Braque. But his colour cheers up a bit once he is released from the internment camp!

Forms – Constructivist? How much chance? What laws do his compositions obey? Any?

References (found material) – Social & personal history. He claimed to sit light to the original significances of found material and of elements of text. But it clearly wasn’t so. (An abundance of bus tickets indicates a prevalence of buses. In London, judging by the collages, he ate an awful lot of Liquorice Allsorts. He does not appear to have eaten Kendal Mint Cake during the Lake District period.)

Untitled, 1942

Untitled, 1942 (Note Liquorice Allsorts)

[Thought: a philatelist notices an extremely rare stamp glued into a Schwitters collage … Thought: British Counter-intelligence analyses his British collages, suspecting them to be coded messages.]

In the collages the upside-down elements (writing, images) are sometimes quite dominant. Did Schwitters work both/all ways up until the final resolution?

His process? Tension between congruences and incongruences. Exercises in daring. Relentless oddness. Defies Ben Nicholson’s tastefulness. Nicholson called Schwitters “an ass and a bore”. (Nicholson could be, in Sven Berlin’s words, “a cold, spiteful little sod”.)

The later paintings and small sculptures move towards a more lyrical, clean, hard edged colourfulness, lose their grubbiness, even take on a strange hint of style. But this threat of taste is always carefully recuperated by some element or small fragment of anti-taste. Allure, then deflection. A sideways step.

Lovely Portrait, 1942

Schwitters, ‘Lovely Portrait,’ 1942

Schwitters, portrait of george Johnston, 1946

Schwitters, portrait of George Johnston, 1946

Asger Jorn, 'The avant-garde doesn't give up painting,' 1962

Asger Jorn, ‘The avant-garde doesn’t give up painting,’ 1962

In Untitled (Lovely Portrait), 1942, Schwitters paints over an existing Victorian portrait, leaving only the face from the original. See Asger Jorn’s interventions (“defigurations”). But unlike Jorn, Schwitters did not disrespect the original, given that he was a conventional portraitist himself. See also Joyce Cary’s Gully Jimson (The Horse’s Mouth) buying an old Rembrandt to paint over in place of a new canvas. Also, Duchamp’s “anti-readymade” notion of using a Rembrandt as an ironing board – though that works only as an idea, not as an object. The portrait painted over by Schwitters as an anti-readymade?

[Thought: in 1943 in London Schwitters was in contact with Jankel Adler. Adler was in close contact with Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde. They could have seen Schwitters’s work on show alongside Adler’s in 1944. Could Schwitters have met the Two Roberts? If so, they may hardly have understood each other.]

Despite the two new works in this show (elaborate, self-indulgent, ignorable) commissioned to honour the “Lake District legacy” of Schwitters, there is no such legacy. One wet Lakeland weekend some years ago, I failed to find any trace of his time in Ambleside. (Though recently the Armitt Collection has started to pull things together.)

Before I viewed this show, I thought that I understood Schwitters’s work. Now I find that I don’t. But I like it all the more for that.

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.”