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: Reuben Mednikoff

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?

 

Some more lost surrealists

Here’s a second batch of lesser known surrealists or quasi-surrealists, culled from a continuing trawl of the BBC’s Your Paintings site. (First batch here. More to come, no doubt.) Again, I’m keeping to the “classic” period (‘thirties to ‘fifties). Though all here lived and worked in the UK, not all were British nationals, so I’ve left the “British” out of this post. Enjoy, as they say. Click for enlargement or slideshow.

Augustus Lunn is one of the many dismissed by Michel Remy, in Surrealism in Britain, as “constitutively incomplete” – surrealists by virtue of technique alone, lacking doctrinal rigour. In Lunn’s case, this seems particularly unfair. Though with Beatrice, Lady Glenavy, Dublin aesthete, pupil of William Orpen and friend of Katherine Mansfield, we are definitely at the decorative end of surrealism. She seems to have moved from late Pre-Raph to Catholic symbolism to a sort of twee deco, but for a while in the ‘thirties, she certainly flirted with surreality. But whatever the style, her work is always highly accomplished technically. With Fergus Graham, we seem to be at the fantasy end. Beyond a show at the Lefevre in 1935, I can’t say I know much more about him.

Ditto Margarethe Garthe, who was born in 1891, lived in Beckenham, had a show at the Loggia Gallery, London, in 1972 and died in 1976. Hein Heckroth, on the other hand, was a considerable name as an art director for film and stage, well connected with the surrealist movement and with other wartime emigrés. His film work has definite Dalinian tendencies, but this portrait opts for the full bonkers effect, with tweedy military theorist and historian Liddell Hart looking splendidly out of place among the pipes, severed ears and assorted squishy objects that litter the receding desert. Thomas Esmond Lowinsky is best known as a successful purveyor of cool, classical-deco whimsy, but this fine, tight little canvas, often on show at Wolverhampton Art Gallery, achieves rather more of a disturbing effect.

Poet and artist René Halkett (1900 – 1983) was a Bauhaus veteran who transplanted to Britain. Google-wise, he seems best known these days for his late collaboration with David J of the band Bauhaus, but drop his name into Google images and it’s clear that his artwork is well worth a browse, especially the earlier Dada stuff. American Charles Houghton Howard lived and worked in Britain before and after the war. His nicely clean cut biomorphism puts him at the abstract pole of surrealism, not too far from the messier and more instinctual Sam (Thomas Samuel) Haile, potter and night-time painter – the most pukka British surrealist of the lot in this selection. Remy’s chronicle rightly devotes several pages to Haile, who, he says, “aims at flaying and tearing surfaces to help vision become primary again”. Haile was a developed theorist, but his work is unsettlingly de-learned and outsiderish; it’s no surprise to find that he highly rated the work of fellow psychonauts Grace Pailthorpe and Reuben Mednikoff.

When Reuben met Grace

Reuben Mednikoff, 'King of the Castle', 1938

A word in honour of British Surrealism’s oddest couple, the wonderful Mednikoff and Pailthorpe. After Grace Pailthorpe, psychoanalyst and mother figure, and Reuben Mednikoff, painter and child substitute, fell for each other (despite – or maybe because of – a two and a bit decades’ age gap) at a party given in 1935 by Victor Neuberg (forgotten Swinburnean poet and ex-acolyte of Aleister Crowley), they embarked promptly on a decade and a half of heroically intensive mutual psychoanalysis, using automatic drawing and painting as their chosen therapeutic method; in the process they generated hundreds of extraordinary artworks and uncounted pages of notes and interpretations. Much of their delving involved regression to infantile or even intra-uterine experience, and in late 1936 they developed a shared baby-talk language called “Curucuchoo”, in which they wrote a number of texts.

Reuben Mednikoff

 

Grace Pailthorpe

 

When their direction was deemed to diverge from the orthodoxy then required of the British surrealist group, their summary expulsion from it was engineered by E L T Mesens, bumptious and untalented Trotskyist, self-appointed group leader and André Breton’s mini-me. In 1940 the pair fled to New York, returning to England after the war. In 1948, Mednikoff was “adopted” by his mumsy lover, changing his name to Richard Pailthorpe.

Mednikoff, 'Bulbous Figure', c 1935

It’s hardly surprising that after fifteen years of squelchy, labyrinthine navel gazing, their project wound up as a school of art therapy; finally in the mid-sixties it descended inevitably into new-ageiness as the old-age duo took to the sub-Theosophical teachings of Alice A Bailey. Grace Pailthorpe died in 1971. Reuben Mednikoff, perhaps unable to live without her, died a few months later.

There is only one book about them – Sluice Gates of the Mind, the expanded catalogue to the 1998 exhibition of their work at the City Art Gallery, Leeds. This is well furnished with colour plates and original documents; it contains three substantial texts, but owes most to the exertions of Andrew Wilson. It’s on offer in some places (like many art books) at hopelessly silly prices, but I managed an as-new copy for a tenner.

Short of this, a quick starting point might be this breezy review at artcornwall.org. More determined readers might try the 2010 PhD thesis on the pair by Lee Ann Montanaro, downloadable as a pdf from the University of Edinburgh. It’s an academic study, so it proceeds at a stately pace, but her research has been grounded most thoroughly in primary materials from the rich Pailthorpe and Mednikoff archive at the Dean Gallery in Edinburgh, making this a highly informed piece of work. The only regret is that Montanaro cuts off her account at 1940. A curious side issue on which she sheds some light is the tangled fate of Pailthorpe and Mednikoff’s papers before they were acquired as an archive, in relation to the unpublished study of Dr David Rumney.

Mednikoff, 'April 21 1935 - 4'

At this distance, as Freudian and Kleinian theory slide away into the Museum of Discredited Ideas, the endless and obsessive interpretations and analytical descriptions of the drawings and paintings tend to shed their fascination. The detailed identifications of murky and brutal symbolisms – mother, anus, penis, faeces etc – are extraordinary and compelling in small doses, but there’s only so much of this stuff that you might want to read. It’s the images that last. Of the two image makers, Pailthorpe, being untrained, is the lesser artist, though much of her work has a naïve/brut appeal. But Mednikoff, with the skills and experience of a commercial artist, brings an excitingly convincing plasticity to his automatic squiggles, which morph wonderfully and tonally into three dimensions, or suggest unpleasant cartoons drawn by Joan Miró on acid.

Pailthorpe, 'The Blazing Infant', 1940

By the ‘sixties, Pailthorpe’s paintings had become rather more decorative, with loose washes of primary colour. Much happier, in fact. Which suggests a resolution of some sort at the end of all those desperate years of birth trauma and castration. One would like to think so. But in any case, what a heroic endeavour! They may have sailed on Sargasso seas, but Pailthorpe and Mednikoff were true Argonauts of the Unconscious. We should salute them, at the very least, for the near-superhuman stature of their obsessions.

Mednikoff, 'Caucasian Blancmange', 1938

“Weirdly overwrought and hysterical”: Leslie Hurry and other neo-romantics at Tate Britain

At Tate Britain the Clore Gallery has been rebranded till next June, putting Turner within the broader context of The Romantics. (Details on the Tate site via the Collection Displays pages.) The whole thing is well devised and curated, and it’s good to see the odd Blake, Palmer or Fuseli in there among the straighter stuff. And as a little bonus, it all signs off with a separately curated roomful of 20thc neo-romantics.

Which, naturally, includes a bunch of Sutherlands (always a pleasure, especially the rich early etchings) and the regulation nod to Piper and Nash. But it’s also a joy to be able to inspect a totally gonzoid Michael Ayrton, a brooding John Craxton, and Keith Vaughan’s Cain and Abel, in which Vaughan appears to have stretched the scriptural record by having Cain slay his brother, Samson-like, with the jawbone of an ass. (A weensie bit strained, and not one of his best, but what the heck? Any Vaughan on show is a gift these days, and we should be grateful for this one.)

The relevant Tate web page also appears to promise John Minton, Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde, but no such luck. A pity. Though it’s only a small space and you can’t have everything, it is all rather Sutherland-heavy, and a sample from these three would have made things more considered. But in compensation for the omission, tucked in at the end, there is This Extraordinary Year, 1945 by Leslie Hurry.

Leslie Hurry, 'Conflict', 1944

Oo-er. Blimey! Leslie who? The name wasn’t too familiar, but on the strength of this painting it is clearly one to conjure with. It’s not possible to link to images of this or any other of his six pieces in the Tate collection, thanks to copyright restrictions (boo!), but This Extraordinary Year is an extraordinary painting, in which a glowing and naked Liberty raises the red flag among a writhing, apocalyptic mass of figures that includes a pope and a politician trampled under the revolutionary surge. Sound stuff!

Available information on Hurry seems limited, though a quick google will give an idea of his style. There is no mention of him in Remy’s irritatingly doctrinaire Surrealism in Britain, though he explored and exhibited automatic drawing, was tagged an “ultra-surrealist”, and was related to the painter John Armstrong (John Hurry Armstrong), whom for that matter Remy also writes off as less than surrealist. The last significant show of his work seems to have been in the ‘eighties. There is a nice self portrait at the National Portrait Gallery, but only one oil, Dialectic No 2, 1940, is to be found on the BBC Your Paintings site. In this the rather geometric figures look a bit Wyndham Lewis, even a bit Merlyn Evans. Most other pieces appear much more fluid. Many surviving works are designs for the theatre and ballet, though to my mind these are of lesser interest. He was also a friend of Mervyn Peake.

In The Spirit of Place, Malcolm Yorke quickly disposes of Hurry as “weirdly overwrought and hysterical”. What’s so wrong with that? Once could say the same of (for instance) the once derided but very wonderful Pailthorpe and Mednikoff, who these days have pukka status. And as British surrealists go, I’d rather take one Hurry than any number of those dry, clunky, repressed pastiches of Ernst by the amateurish and ludicrously over-rated Conroy Maddox.