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: painting

Hodgkin before the splodges

So it’s goodbye to Sir Howard Hodgkin. Though some of his later work has seemed a bit repetitious, declining in conviction, the painfully gorgeous colours and ridiculously juicy splatches of his best and more fruitful years certainly make up for that.

But how about these three? (Click for slides/enlargements.) Back in the late forties Camberwell student Hodgkin bounced Mughal painting off the Euston Road realism of his tutors to come up with this sort of spiny, expressionist satire. I noticed the miniature Tea Party in America at the Hodgkin Tate retro of 2006, parked quietly and apologetically round the corner at the margins of the real show, but found in the end that I liked its monstrous housewives best of all. It’s beautifully intense, disturbed, claustrophobic. Memoirs, I take it, shows a psychoanalyst at work, but not one I’d feel comfortable opening up to.


There’s something here akin to the contemporary oddball jerkiness of Edwin G Lucas, though without the feverish confusion. I appreciate that the famous dots and rich colours are already detectable in these early pieces, but they can be enjoyed in their own right, not just as juvenile harbingers. As the observed elements in his paintings steadily morphed into mush through the ‘fifties, H H lost this early twitch, this spikiness. In the move into contemplation, he sacrificed a bit of edge, you might say.

‘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.

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.

Fuseli and the mucus monkey

 

 

 

 

 

Henry Fuseli’s iconic 1781 painting The Nightmare was much imitated and parodied in its day. It’s good to see that the tradition continues, if only in the shape of Chester the Mucus Monkey, star of the current TV ad for Benylin Mucus Cough, whose leap from the wardrobe onto the victim’s chest is a clear borrowing from Fuseli’s goblinesque squatter. The still here is a little small, but it’s the best I could find. Though for anyone who hasn’t seen it, the whole ad is viewable here.

There seem to be other knowing visual correspondences, too: the brown quality of the shadows, the yellow fabric of the lampshades, the light and shade cast on the rear wall. And Fuseli’s original creature does indeed have a kind of greenish-yellow viscosity to him. Though casting Chester as a (Mexican?) wrestler only seems to confuse the metaphor to me. An unnecessary complication, Benylin people, if you happen to be reading.