Richard Warren

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

Tag Archives: neo-romantic

Leslie Hurry’s palace of wisdom

In 2011 I posted here on a first, rather breathless, encounter with the ‘forties paintings of Leslie Hurry. He was clearly still working well into the 1970’s (he died in 1978); I may be missing something, but I still can’t see any recent monograph – is there really no big, glossy volume on this extraordinary artist?

coverThis lack makes Paintings and Drawings by Leslie Hurry (Grey Walls Press, 1950) still a useful source, at least, up to that point. The book’s intro is by the “prolific and proletarian” Jack Lindsay; this is sympathetic but none too informative. Lindsay wastes several pages trying to set Hurry into some sort of mega history-of-art context, but then fails to locate him as a painter within the movements and networks of his own times, as if his development were some purely personal, hermetic affair. But the book does have 38 plates, though only two are in colour; despite the black and white, it seems worthwhile to scan a few here below. (Click to enlarge.)

Sketch for Self-portrait, drawing, 1945

Sketch for Self-portrait, drawing, 1945

The paintings give out all sorts of echoes. Hurry may have opted to work in detachment from organised surrealism, but his relations in that respect are obvious. Absent from much of the imagery is the standard post-cubist scaffolding, so that his figures often have a ghostly flaccidity, as if their bones had been carefully extracted. They swell, contract and flop like jellyfish. This watery, or airy, looseness is reminiscent of David Jones, and the earliest image in the book, a watercolour of a Breton mass from 1939, is strongly Jones-like, both in style and content. While some later figures show rather more structure, a constant Picasso borrowing throughout is the familiar multi-angled face, though in Hurry’s hands this becomes more an image of simultaneous ambivalence than a trick of animation across adjacent moments.

To my mind, his allegorical images of famine and so forth are the least successful. When Hurry does Agony it veers into cartoony; a 1945 watercolour titled Atom Bomb is awkwardly sub-Guernica. To compensate, the scenery designs are a pleasure; they are richly fantastic, and relate closely to the baroque obsessiveness of Robin Ironside.

Jack Lindsay’s introduction to the book rounds off with his own poem, “The Bough of Sweetness,” dedicated to Hurry:

O difficult regeneration of suffering men
on the star-anvils in Stepney and Glasgow clanging
Mass meeting Strike Prague Five-Years-Plan Shanghai
also the slight chime of a flower perfected
and the livid eyes of fear caught in a word
Steadily the hills close round
with the doves of dawn and the nearing annunciation …

Personally, I find Lindsay’s poetry more interestingly symptomatic than successful, though this does at least represent a clumsy attempt at a verbal equivalent of Hurry’s violent conjunction of the visionary and the political – all very ‘forties, very apocalypse.


In his introduction to the book, Lindsay gives us little by way of Hurry’s biography. Born in 1909, trained at St John’s Wood and the RA School of Painting, emerging in 1931, murals, landscapes, a loss of purpose followed by a “desperate retreat into his lonely self” at a cottage in Thaxted, a spell in Brittany and Montmartre in 1938, from these periods of crisis a move into his mature work, beginning with more geometric configurations but soon evolving into more organic forms, theatre work starting with Hamlet at Sadlers Wells in 1941 – and that’s about as factual as it gets. His Wikipedia page adds not a lot more beyond the interesting detail that his father had been a funeral director, a career path the son rejected.

At the time of my previous post there didn’t seem to be much of Hurry online, but matters have since improved. Copyright restrictions at the Tate site have been lifted, so his artist page there now shows six works, including  This Extraordinary Year, 1945, which called to me when it was on the wall at Tate Britain. Much of Hurry’s work was watercolours; these don’t qualify for the Art UK site, which now offers six paintings, of which four are portraits including two variants of himself, though not the self-portrait shown in this post. Beyond these sources, a Google image search will throw up a couple of dozen additional items from galleries and so on, not counting costume or set designs. Enough to go at.

I find it hard to account for the relatively low profile of such a remarkable British painter, particularly given recent stirrings of interest in the neo-romantic phase. Hurry’s tense, highly strung images layer up beyond exhaustion those twitchy, compulsive marks and fragments until they hiss and sing in a sort of maximalist coherence, hard won against the odds by forcing overwroughtness through to a point of virtue. For once here, the road of excess does lead to the palace of wisdom.

Advertisements

Royal academician goes bonkers: the mysterious Stanley Jackson

Now 4

 

 

It’s good when something rather wonderful turns up unexpectedly, especially if it involves a “lost” British surrealist. Or quasi-surrealist, even. Yesterday the postman delivered my copy of Now 4, George Woodcock’s anarcho-arty-literary review put out under the Freedom Press banner, this issue apparently from late 1944. A few pages away from what I’d been looking for were four bonus and totally bongoid images by an unheard-of artist, with this curious little write-up:

PATTERN OF FRUSTRATION

Four Drawings by Stanley Jackson

The work of Stanley Jackson has not yet received the attention that it undoubtedly merits, the main reason for this being that it deals with subjects which society prefers to ignore – death, frustration, the hopelessness of individual life and the pointlessness of accepting the current solutions. In this sense Stanley Jackson is a Romantic in outlook for he sees man as a victim of his environment, and has no faith in the political panaceas which glib-tongued orators espouse so convincingly, and with such cost to mankind. In the past he had paintings exhibited at the Royal Academy, but his present development represents a withdrawal from the academic field towards a personal maturity which can only be expressed in less rigid forms.

Pattern of Frustration is, in my opinion, one of the clearest statements of the evolution of the individual in society. In the first reproduction we see the apparently solid footing suddenly merging into nothingness, and from this moment the individual is caught up in the struggle which can end only in defeat. The symbolism of the second phase needs no explanation while the third part shows the ephemeral moment when an ecstatic realisation is glimpsed. The final stage is portrayed in the last reproduction – the moment vanishes to be followed by the inevitable frustration – either the individual has to accept and adapt himself, or he faces annihilation. From this dilemma there is no escape.

A. J. McCARTHY.


Frustration? Er, well, yes. This doesn’t exactly flood the subject with clear light. A J McCarthy is no easy name to place, but I’m pretty sure that this has to be the A J McCarthy who wrote widely on jazz in the ‘fifties and who lived at this point in Notting Hill. I imagine Jackson was a mate. As for People and assJackson himself, he was born in 1917 but at the moment I can find little else. It seems that he did his time as a serviceman, but he is nowhere credited as a war artist. The National Army Museum holds a competent oil portrait of a soldier of the Madras Guards, done in 1943, signed with that name in a style not incompatible with the signing on our four images, while auction value websites throw up just one image of a painting of wartime refugees, shown here, and list a still life and a couple of watercolour views possibly by the same man – precious little survival for his “academic” phase and RA showings.

The four images in Now (click them above to enlarge) show a technical competence compatible with these two earlier pieces, but in every other respect they are light years away; their “Jaxon” signature suggests, for whatever reason, a very deliberate dissociation, while their cartoony plasticity and psycho-content surely owe much to the example of the wonderful Reuben Mednikoff, potholer of the unconscious. (See this post.) They’re described as drawings, but the rather grainy reproductions suggest that, if not pastels, they might even be paintings.

In the same issue of Now, McCarthy’s slightly baffling use of the term “frustration” is echoed, and perhaps explained, in a stodgy opener by editor George Woodcock on “The Writer and Politics” which bemoans the “schizoid frustration [my emphasis] … of the modern intellectual when confronted by social issues,” and proposes a disengagement of the writer from collective political activity as the only guarantee of uncontaminated authenticity. All part of the ongoing wriggling and repositioning of British leftist writers post-Auden and post-Popular Front. McCarthy’s outline implies that the crisis of Woodcock’s writer is experienced by every individual in a modern society in their compromised relations to social and political forces. (Woodcock’s position amounts to a neo-Stirnerism, an egoist or existentialist anarchism, which was common ground among Freedom Pressers, Apocalyptics and Personalists at the time. See also my piece on the anarchism of Henry Treece. More to come, incidentally, on the “anarchist” poetry of Woodcock and Alex Comfort in future posts.)

The works’ four titles have to be Jackson’s own, but is the sequence title “Pattern of Frustration” just McCarthy’s after-gloss on a selection of Jackson’s images? Or was that meta-meaning part of the artist’s intent? It’s hard to be sure. If the latter, these would not be surrealist works; rather than emerging from a process of automatism they would be symbolisations of pre-existing ideas. And it’s maybe true that they lack something of the unexpectedness of the comparable but genuinely automatic imagery of Mednikoff, Grace Pailthorpe or Sam Haile. So are they merely contrived and cynical pastiches of the surreal?

I don’t think so. And to be honest, I don’t care. I think they’re great, and it’s a huge pity we only have them in black and white. The fragmented amoeboids sucked past blasted trees through the sgraffito wind tunnel of Awareness are a classic image of wartime angst, while the John Tunnard-ish outline face of Ultimate Despair (great title), while practically toppling over into comic doom, sits brilliantly over the strange pointy-breasted nude and the drooping background monsters. What’s really going on here? Is it too glib to ascribe this extraordinary lurch into psychologism to the trauma of Jackson’s wartime experiences? It’s hard to imagine what might otherwise account for it, so perhaps not.

And what happened to these works of Jackson’s “personal maturity”? Do they survive? And are there more of the same out there? I need to know. If you can tell me, use the comments option, please!

Minor post script

On closer inspection, there is another war period Jackson hidden on the Art UK site, an oil of boat builders at Madras, listed as by E Jackson. However,  subject location, painting style and signature are all compatible with the National Army Museum picture, and it’s easy to take an “S” for an “E”. The painting is here. It’s owned by Nuneaton Museum and Art Gallery and was bought in 1970. It’s a decent, unremarkable work, and I’m struck again by the extraordinary transition in Jackson’s career.

Incidentally, is it just me, or do others find the Art UK site, with its annoying, floating, pinterest-style, pick n’ mix pages, a lot harder to use than the old Your Paintings site?

 

Humphrey Spender’s ‘Atomic Flower’ and the New Apocalypse

(Since this was first posted, a larger image of this painting has become available at the ‘Your Paintings’ site, here.)

The release of the Public Catalogue Foundation’s (PCF) volumes of Oil Paintings in Public Ownership, and the development of the “Your Paintings” website, gives us all, at long last, a chance to see just what’s hidden away in the vaults of our local galleries that rarely or never comes out into the daylight.

Wolverhampton Art Gallery (my local) devotes whole furlongs of wall space to its unrivalled collections of Georgian and Victorian sepia mediocrities (the Fuseli excepted), justified by a display policy focused around social and historical content, a policy which also drives their recent purchases and contemporary collection. This doesn’t allow too much of an airing for the very decent 20th century material they mostly keep under the carpet.

A thumb through the PCF Staffordshire catalogue reveals quite a bunch of modernist and English surrealist items at Wolves: John Armstrong, John Banting, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, John Selby Bigge,  Duncan Grant, Tristram Hillier, Thomas Esmond Lowinsky, Augustus Lunn, John and Paul Nash, John Piper, William Roberts, Stanley Spencer, John Tunnard, Anthony Twentyman (six canvases), Edward Wadsworth, Alfred Wallis and, last but not least, Christopher Wood. Most are not often seen on the walls, and some never. They would make a good roomful, and a nice change from all those dull Georgian worthies and Victorian farm girls.

And in the Wolverhampton basement there is also this: Atomic Flower by Humphrey Spender. (This small image here will have to do for the time being.) Yes, that’s Spender the photographer, Mass Observationist, textile designer and brother to poet Stephen. His paintings (a bit of a sideline) tended to follow prevailing styles, which in the late ‘thirties for him meant surrealism, though Michel Remy carefully excludes him from his 1991 study, Surrealism in Britain. This canvas is dated to 1939-40, and is not among his most technically accomplished, even for that relatively early date. But to me it seems of unusual interest.

The collection catalogue describes it as an “open interior of a room in a landscape. Inside the room is a giant flower with a colourful fiery centre. There are scientific/mechanical objects placed in the landscape.” The “room” is perhaps better described as a box-like building with the near wall and roof missing. A front door is left hanging in space above the steps, and a window has clearly been blown out. The walls appear black and charred.

Distant mountains are fronted by a flat plain punctuated by receding poles or fence posts in the manner of Paul Nash etc. The foreground objects clearly owe a great deal to Edward Wadsworth’s semi-surreal marine still lives, a couple resembling ship’s screw propellers in a non-specific way. In the corner of the room sits a metal object composed of three elliptical loops around a central axis.

At the heart of the building, and of the composition, a huge dark textured flower unfolds, its five molten petals surrounding a centre of orange and blue flames – the atomic flower of the title. Despite the naivety of its execution, the image achieves a disquieting and threatening quality.

Given the dating, we are likely to take this for a Blitz image, a surrealist variant of the bombed street ruins made iconic, in a neo-romantic way, by John Piper, John Minton et al. On the other hand, given the title, this does look uncannily like a premonition of nuclear warfare – gleaming scientific instruments creating a mushroom-like exploding fiery form that devastates the landscape. And where is this landscape? (New Mexico? Los Alamos?) How likely is any of this for 1940?

Nuclear fission was discovered on the eve of World War two, and a practicable atomic bomb was still widely considered impossible in 1940, the Manhattan Project not getting under way until 1942. Could the dating of the painting be wrong? Or the title have been adopted at a later date?

The term “atomic flower” is now sometimes colloquially applied to the familiar stylised  “atom symbol” representing electrons circling the nucleus. Variants show either three or four ellipses, making six or eight “petals”. Remarkably, a three dimensional version of this symbol is present in the painting, in the shape of the scientific object on the corner of the floor. The symbol may have been known to Spender at this time in some diagram form, but the term “atomic flower” is a recent coinage, making his prescience even more striking.

The term has lately acquired a different connotation. As a contribution to the work of the US Human Interference Task Force, charged with devising “nuclear semiotic” warnings against contact with stored radioactive waste that will remain intelligible for the next 10,000 years, the SF writer Stanislaw Lem has proposed the development of “information plants” or “atomic flowers” that would grow only in the vicinity of terminal storage sites. Spender’s monstrous flower lends itself well to this scenario.

Though the fear of “nuclear apocalypse” was not born until 1945, the catchphrase “Apocalypse” or “New Apocalypse” was coined in 1940 as an umbrella for the vague coalition of philosophical anarchism, “personalism” and neo-romantic tendencies in the arts, loosely related to surrealism, promoted during the war years by Henry Treece, J F Hendry, Stefan Schimanski, Robert Herring and others in reviews such as Transformation and Kingdom Come. It seems ironic that at the end of the war, just as the coherence, such as it was, of the New Apocalypse movement was unravelling, the prospects for nuclear apocalypse suddenly drew terrifyingly close. A real New Apocalypse!

The poetry of the Apocalypse movement has since been largely discredited in critical terms, though British neo-romantic painting has enjoyed a re-evaluation over recent years. The quality of the Apocalypse poets and writers was variable, to say the least. But the movement is not without interest, and I aim to consider some aspects in the future on this site. Spender’s Atomic Flower would have made a fine poster image for the New Apocalypse.