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: New Art Gallery Walsall

Garman-Ryan collection under threat at Walsall

Here we go again.

Quite a few posts on this blog have been focused around the excellent New Art Gallery in Walsall, a prestigious building opened in 2000 at a cost of shed-loads, which houses an extraordinarily fine permanent collection based around the amazing Garman-Ryan Collection given to Walsall in the ‘seventies by Kathleen Garman, Jacob Epstein’s widow and a Black Country girl born and bred. The Gallery also houses an important Epstein archive.

Astonishingly, the future of the Gallery is now in jeopardy. Under severe financial pressure from the government’s austerity programme, the Lib-Lab coalition running Walsall Council is floating a draconian withdrawal of funding which, it seems to me, would bring inevitable closure. More detail down below, but meanwhile, if you’re interested, here are some readable links with fuller stories, including (end of the list) one to a petition to save the Gallery:

BBC news     The Art Newspaper     The Guardian   The petition

Finally, as promised, the small print. Here’s the relevant bit from the Council’s horrific “Summary of Revenue Policy Savings by Portfolio for Consultation.” (Click to enlarge if need be, or skim down to my closing comments.)

doc-combo

So, a £100K kick up the bum next year to wake things up, then a year’s grace, then in 2019 the £470K subsidy will be reduced at a stroke to £80K. No matter how they dress this up as an “opportunity” (don’t they always?), I just can’t see enough “new business” or “philanthropic support” arriving by then to plug a gap of such proportions, even with sensible trimming. Something brave and creative is needed from the Council here, with a commitment not to go for closure while solutions are being found.

A note on “environmental implications”, further on in this document,  anticipates the Gallery building being “disposed of”. What happens then to the collection? I’ve no idea what legal provisions may have hedged in Kathleen Garman’s gift to the Borough, but if they’re not watertight and more, I can see Sotheby’s rubbing their grubby hands already.

I’ve no intention of allowing this issue to hijack the blog as happened with Mandergate a couple of years back, but if a campaign coalesces somewhere beyond the existing petition page, I will post a link.

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.

The unmaking of ‘Rock Drill’: unmaking the myth

Image259An excellent little exhibition I should have posted about earlier has just finished – ‘Epstein’s Rock Drill Transformed by War’ at the New Art Gallery, Walsall. A century on from the first display of Epstein’s mechanical monster, this juxtaposed the 1974 reconstruction of the full original with the surviving ‘Torso’ from the Tate, alongside related items and a bunch of context.

The show promoted a strong narrative, according to which Epstein unmade and reduced the original full figure sculpture, and chucked out the drill on which it had sat, in revulsion at the horrors of mechanised warfare. The truncated torso, mutilated and abject, then became an image of suffering, of wounded soldiery. Epstein’s own later comment about Rock Drill as a ‘Frankenstein’s monster’ is pulled in, as usual, to back this interpretation.

But hang on. What Epstein actually said with hindsight in 1940 in his Let There be Sculpture was this:

‘… a machine-like robot, visored, menacing, and carrying within itself its progeny, protectively ensconced. Here is the armed, sinister figure of today and tomorrow. No humanity, only the terrible Frankenstein’s monster we have made ourselves into …’

Here Epstein says that the sculpture is of a Frankenstein’s monster, not that it is that monster. It’s an important distinction, for in saying this he in no way disavows the work. Far from it: Rock Drill, in all its mechanical inhumanity, is presented as a valid work of prophetic protest. As for the demounted version of 1916, Epstein simply adds:

‘I lost my interest in machinery and discarded the drill.’

Image267So where lie the origins of this tragic myth of transformation? As so often where the Vorticist complex is concerned, with Richard Cork. Back in 1974, in the Vorticism and its Allies exhibition catalogue, in the light of Epstein’s own comments Cork was wisely circumspect:

‘Perhaps he was unhappy with the status of a ready-made drill in a work of art … and perhaps, too, with the destructive overtones of a mechanistic sculpture now that everyone was growing aware of what machines meant in terms of real war.’

Perhaps, indeed. Fair enough. But 25 years on, by the time of his 1999 Jacob Epstein paperback for the Tate, Cork’s ‘perhaps’ had become inflated to ‘inevitable’:

‘The industrialised armaments unleashed during the First World War slaughtered soldiers and civilians in their millions, forcing innovative young artists to reconsider their attitudes. It was inevitable, then, that the war’s apocalyptic course would prompt Epstein to make radical changes to Rock Drill.’

Image264The following year, in the compilation Blast, Vorticism 1914-1918, edited by Paul Edwards, Cork expanded:

‘The Great War … claimed an obscene number of victims with the help of inventions like the rapid-fire machine gun. Once the devastating power of such weapons became widely understood, it was no longer possible to regard an object like the rock drill in a straightforwardly positive light … Epstein came to the conclusion that it should be excluded from his sculpture.’

And from this last source the myth passes directly into Walsall Gallery’s own leaflets on the subject. Not just directly, but actually word for word:

Epstein’s Rock Drill, 2003: ‘By 1915 the First World War was claiming an obscene number of victims with the help of inventions such as the rapid-fire machine gun … He was no longer able to regard the “Rock Drill” and the power of machinery in such a positive light.’

Elin Morgan, Epstein’s Rock Drill Transformed by War, 2015: ‘… as soon as the devastating power of such weapons was realised, it was no longer possible to see Rock Drill in a positive light. Epstein came to the conclusion that it should be excluded from his oeuvre.’

IMGSo if Rock Drill was not deconstructed in a fit of pacifist shame, why did Epstein pull it to bits?

Well, he badly needed to make a living (a factor often overlooked by academics). And in this case the living was coming largely from American art collector John Quinn. In May 1914 Epstein described the sculpture in a letter to Quinn, admitting that he had ‘small chance of ever selling it,’ given that a nine foot stack of industrial machinery was hardly a living room piece. ‘My Rock Drill,’ he later admitted, ‘was my great adventure and I did not expect to sell it.’

So in 1915, Epstein dismounted the plaster robot, discarded the drill, and reduced the figure to a torso small enough to be cast in metal. Why? Simply because it made it saleable. In 1916 Quinn was still keen to buy, and Epstein sent him photos of the reduced and cast Rock Drill, which he priced at £200. In the end, it was not among the pieces acquired by Quinn, who was also budgeting to buy works by Gaudier-Brzeska, but it came close.

IMG_0002The prosaic is always disappointing, and the urge to discover Big Meanings is a very human and forgivable urge. But in this case tragic myth making has coloured our understanding rather too readily. As for Epstein’s alleged decision that Rock Drill ‘should be excluded’ from his oeuvre, I can find no basis for it.

It’s a pity, by the way, that Epstein’s original intention to plug in a generator to the drill, to keep it running while on display, proved impracticable. That would really have brassed off the critics.

Women with chisels: (1) Sally Ryan; (2) Hepworth Mander scandal update

Sally Ryan: not a “sculptress”

Mother and Child

Mother and Child

After all the recent focus here on Barbara Hepworth (see also below), a moment to mention another woman with a chisel, the relatively unknown American sculptor Sally Ryan, more usually thought of as a collector, as a member of the Jacob Epstein circle, and as the second half of the New Art Gallery Walsall’s Garman Ryan collection. Walsall have recently re-jigged the Garman Ryan for its 40th anniversary, and have made a good job of it. (Except that the inept interventions of Patrick Brill RA, as “Bob and Roberta Smith”, still clutter the place. I guess Brill was bought in to add contemporary edge to the collection, as if it needed it; am I the only one who finds his posturing amateurism plain insulting?)

Sarah Tack Ryan, known to her American friends as Tammie, was the granddaughter of mega-millionaire Thomas Fortune Ryan, whose lawyer had been famed New York collector John Quinn. As the Milwaukee Journal put it, in a breathless write-up of August 1940:

“Sally Ryan, a resolute wisp of a girl … never cared a whoop about society but cared a great deal about sculpture. So she became a sculptor.

The word ‘sculptress’ is one of her pet hates. To her, that outdated ‘ess’ signifies a dabbler – ‘a person who does the little, twiddly sort of thing.’ ‘There are many sculptresses among the debutantes,’ she said, ‘but no sculptors.’”

Unfinished Mask

Unfinished Mask

In 1935 Ryan visited London and tracked down Epstein, who became an important influence on her work. The Garman Ryan collection includes a number of her pleasing portrait bronzes in his manner, but I much prefer her carving, represented there by two pieces: a handsome Unfinished Mask in marble, and a remarkably tender limestone Mother and Child that shows the absorbed influences of Epstein, Frank Dobson and early Hepworth. She was a prolific worker, so where’s all the rest of her carving? I’m not sure, though several photos, apparently from the mid ‘forties, show another large mother and child in progress.

As a bit of a rich kid, Ryan didn’t want for publicity shots. I particularly like the first Alfredo Valente photo below where, hammer in hand, she leans meditatively on a large carving, looking boho-preppy in shorts and pumps. Accounts always mention “mannish clothes” – blue or grey flannel slacks and a boy’s shirt, old sweaters and battered oxford brogues – which were taken as a token of her sexuality. A later image shows her as remarkably elegant.

It’s not clear to me for how long she continued to sculpt. Less frequently, perhaps, as the throat cancer that killed her closed in. In later years she devoted herself to buying artworks in company with Kathleen Garman, Epstein’s widow. She died in her early fifties in 1968. [For enlargements and slide shows, click below.]


A write-up in a June 1940 issue of Life suggested that “being the granddaughter of … an American multimillionaire has given Sally Ryan as much incentive to succeed as if she had been born poor and obscure.” No doubt, but one also wonders if it gave her public less incentive to take her seriously and an excuse to dismiss her as a dilettante, rather than the fine sculptor she actually proved herself to be.

Wolverhampton’s Barbara Hepworth: Mander scandal update

For anything new on the campaign to rescue Wolverhampton’s Hepworth bronze Rock Form (Porthcurno) from the evil clutches of Royal Bank of Scotland, please continue to check our Facebook page.

gormley storySince the last round-up here nine days ago, the cause has attracted the firm backing of Antony Gormley, the petition has passed 1,100 signatures, and the story has reached –

Midlands Today BBC regional news (August 19)

BBC News Online

Artlyst – also here

Artnet

The Herald Scotland

Delancey and RBS have responded with evasive and non-committal assurances that they are “looking at” ways to keep the sculpture “available” to the people of Wolverhampton. Not good enough! Perhaps the imminent sale of the Mander Centre to a private equity investment outfit will help to sharpen their focus …

Watching the Megalopolopolis

Pushing into the slanting drizzle that raked the bleak cultural plazas of central Birmingham today, I found my way to Metropolis: reflections on the modern city, on show at the Gas Hall till late June. Here Birmingham and Walsall Galleries show off the “nationally significant Metropolis collection” of “visions of the modern global city by some of the world’s most exciting artists” on which, nudged along by Ikon Gallery, they have splashed their share of the £1 million Art Fund loot.

“The world’s most exciting artists” may be over-egging it a bit, but the dosh has not been entirely wasted. Largely photos and videos, but at least those media have the sheer capacity required to reflect the complexities of an unending urbanism.

I was strangely soothed by Grazia Toderi’s double video projection Orbite Rosse (2009), in which the multi-layered lights of the distant megalopolopolis twinkle and shift benignly; initially pleased by Nicholas Provost’s Storyteller (2011), though on second thoughts merely flipping vertically the moving panoramas of Las Vegas to give a quick impression of intricacy is a bit cheap, to be honest; but fascinated by the slo-mo telephoto multitudes in Beat Streuli’s 2001 video Pallasades. Filming people unguarded at a distance seems to be Struli’s only trick, but at least it’s a good trick. (Though I read recently that the British poet Drummond Allison, killed in 1943, came up around 1941 with the idea of erecting a static camera in the street to film whatever passed, way before Warhol.)

In this show much is “reflected” and “explored” of course, and “issues” are “raised”, as they usually are. But no one’s saying much. And most of it seems so distant and passive: city as backdrop, its image a celebration of our beautiful alienation. Like Iggy Pop’s Passenger, the bus window is as close as we get. So where are the engagements, the détournements, the interventions? Without them, we seem to be stuck in a loop of the same old Ballardian narrative, drifting observers of a decaying urbanism so fixed as to resemble a state of nature …

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.

Dancers at the end of time: Isabel Rawsthorne at Walsall

A rare and recommended opportunity at the New Art Gallery Walsall (till 8 September) to view work by Isabel Rawsthorne (Isabel Lambert), model to Epstein, lover of Giacometti, muse to Francis Bacon, and so on. The biogs mention that she was a painter, but so invisible is much of her work that we are almost in Nina Hamnett or Dora Carrington territory: a woman painter whose work has been scribbled out by her network of fascinating relationships. Google-image her name (a good legacy test) and it’s the walking-dead images of her by Bacon that invade. (Some considerable distance, amusingly, from Epstein’s 1932 explodingly-breasted bronze of her – one of Jacob’s cheesier efforts.)

So it’s interesting indeed to see what she actually painted. “Moving Bodies” is a couple of small roomsful of drawings and paintings of dancers. (Rawsthorne hung out with Fonteyn and Nureyev.) The drawings are nervy tracings of the twitching of her eye around the figures – mere biro spasms, some of them. But you can see what she learned from Giacometti. Bodies are built up from the inside out, assuming fluid, subtle, irregular surfaces.

The paintings seem, on the whole, uncertain in comparison, some being really drawings that don’t quite know where else to go. But a couple stand out as fully resolved: Movement from La Bayadère 2 (c1966) simply hums, quite luminously. I see that Bacon bought this one, and he knew a good thing when he saw one.

In Fonteyn (“late 1960’s”) two figures like splashes of white fluid vault, a little grotesquely, across a streaky curtain of gloomy paint. This one is highly Baconesque, even down to the dotted spinal column that emerges from the upper figure. (Some of Rawsthorne’s dancers were shown in 1968 at the Marlborough, Bacon’s gallery. But one suspects that the influence was in one direction.)

Movement from La Bayadere 2

Before seeing Rawsthorne’s paintings, I hadn’t appreciated the closeness between the paintings of Giacometti and Bacon, but now it seems obvious. In Rawsthorne’s work, as in theirs, fluid, exploratory figures – “transient”, “vulnerable”, “fragile” (her terms) – inhabit briefly a space defined by an uncertain abstract scaffolding – in her case, derived from the mirrors, handrail and floor grid of the ballet practice room. Post war angst gives this transience a touch of universality; we are all fleeting dancers, making our few moves before we dissolve into the shadows. So Rawsthorne’s is, ultimately, a pessimistic vision, but redeemed by its few seconds of grace. While Bacon’s vision seems stubbornly unredeemed –  a point that many of us will want to chat with him about during the eternity to come …

Fonteyn