Richard Warren

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

Tag Archives: Roger Fry

Mr Gartsides and the Giles-like gnomes

I didn’t have much of an art education. My secondary school (a hopelessly narrow Direct Grant Grammar) had just the one part time art teacher, Mr Brown, who taught the first couple of year groups only, and spent most of his time carving memorial tablets or fabricating ambitiously elaborate box sets for school plays. But at least he (alone of all the staff) had a great beard.

I later had reason to be personally grateful for his support of my extra-curricular artistic leanings, but I was perplexed at first by his scrupulous, near total abstinence from any direction in lessons. “Boys,” he would suggest, “you’ll have seen the Lord Mayor’s Show on television the other day; do me a lively painting of the Lord Mayor’s Parade. Lots of colour.” Or he would chalk up some brief topic – “A Picnic on a Sunny Day” or “A Storm at Sea” – and after the briefest discussion of its possibilities would bugger off to the back of the art room and chip away at a piece of granite while we got on with it. Pupils were unavoidably distracted under this lax regime; a friend and I once experimented to see how far we could shoot the cap off a fat, unopened tube of white by “accidentally” dropping it on the floor and lowering a chair leg onto it. (It went a long way, and an impressive trail of rich white paint went with it.) But Mr Brown handled any mischief or spilt paint with experienced patience.

Marion Richardson

Marion Richardson

Was he a uniquely lazy teacher? I admit that I thought so. Only many years later, encountering the art education theories of Marion Richardson and her many followers, did I realise that this was the progressive orthodoxy of the times. The good Mr Brown would rather have chiselled off his own drawing hand than interfere with our intrinsic creativity by presuming to direct and advise, or even, within the limits of practicality, quell our chatter. His duty was to set the ambience, to provide sugar paper and paint, and to present a neutral stimulus; our childish and privileged urge to self expression would do the rest.

art and the childMarion Richardson pioneered her child-centred art teaching at Dudley Girls’ High School from 1912, winning the attention and approval of Roger Fry, no less, though her book Art and the Child was not published until 1948, posthumously. By then her spontaneist methods, in various degrees of exaggeration or dilution, had become mainstream, and were not challenged until the plodding sub-Bauhaus “basic design” approach came along in the ‘sixties.

In a chapter of Rotting Hill (1951), his entertaining chronicle of post-war drabsterity, the ageing writer and painter Wyndham Lewis encounters an apostle of Richardson (filtered via Herbert Read) in the unlikely shape of Walter Gartsides, pugnacious Geordie and ex-Indian army sergeant, now demobilised and retrained as a slum school art teacher:

“A thigh thrown over a desk, an arm akimbo, his utility shoe dangling, the children were addressed by Gartsides; and their fidgety little eyes popped out of their curly little heads. They were told that what was spontaneous was best. Spontaneous meaning what spurts up, free and uncontrolled,  not fed out by a nasty tap … They would get no direction from him, his role was that of a helpful looker-on. Ready to give a hand, that was all …

… The children – typical Giles-like gnomes from the neighbouring sooty alleys and crapulous crescents – were of course alarmed and excited. Then he appeared one morning with a number of tins of house-painters’ colours and a couple of dozen suitable brushes … He pointed dramatically to the walls of the classroom crying: ‘Here’s paints and brushes and there’s the old wall! Attaboy! Paint me some pitchers on it!’

His petrified class suddenly saw the light. With squeaks of rapture they went to work. Soon the walls, part of the ceiling, as well as the cupboards and doors and even some areas of the floor of the class-room were as rich with crude imagery as the walls of a public lavatory. Some of the children were smeared from head to foot with paint.”

When school inspectors view the outcome, Gartsides escapes dismissal by feigning imbecility.

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A “fine, rough artlessness”: ‘Fenland Couple on the Costa Brava’ by Melville Hardiment

Did this apocalyptic outbreak of infantile spontaneity actually take place? One hopes so. But “Gartsides” is Lewis’s semi-fictionalised caricature of the real Melville Hardiment (1915-1996), painter, poet, teacher and editor. Hardiment was indeed an ex-regular sergeant but was from the Cambridgeshire Fens, not Durham, studied  at Camberwell under Victor Pasmore, and taught at Bromsgrove in Worcestershire, not in the slums of Bermondsey. He visited Lewis several times, finding the older man’s “faded flat” suggestive of  “decayed gentility”, and conversed much. For his part, Lewis approved of Hardiment’s no-nonsense attitude:

“I rather liked Mr Gartsides. I even secretly wished him luck …  That that day to this I have breathlessly followed his career. He has grown to be a somewhat different person: but he retains, to the full, his fine, rough artlessness.”

A somewhat different person indeed. Hardiment was already a Second World War poet. (Three remarkably brutal pieces are anthologised in the Oasis collection of 1983.) He went on, among many other things, to champion school magazines, co-editing (with Caroline Benn, wife of Tony) a failing periodical on the subject, Antiphon, but he is best remembered for being the man who introduced William Burroughs to LSD (or tried to). He is stated to have been “familiar with the London underworld” and to have had five wives and nine children. There will simply have to be a proper post devoted to Hardiment here shortly (or to as much as I can currently trace of him).

School art lessons pre-Gartsides, as seen by Giles

School art lessons pre-Gartsides, as seen by Giles

Likewise a post or two on the vexed history of school art in the 20th century, drawing from my dusty accumulation of vintage manuals of art teaching. The Giles cartoon reference by Lewis was spot on, by the way. In Giles’s world of school, even post-war art lessons were still reduced to silent Victorian copying exercises under the dreadful gaze of the cadaverous “Chalky”. Only rarely (in particular in woodwork) might real mayhem break free …

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King Mobster in Bloomsbury: T J Clark, Picasso and Wyndham Lewis

As the memorable Jonathan Richman song asserts,

Well some people try to pick up girls
And they get called an asshole
But this never happened to Pablo Picasso

Well perhaps not, but it’s certainly happened to Wyndham Lewis, if only in T J Clark’s review of the Picasso and Modern British Art show at Tate Britain. (“False Moderacy”, London Review of Books, 22 March.) TJ, among many, seems quite unable to resist Picasso’s stare, as the song puts it. For these Picasso-olaters (his own term), their man is the default reference point. So works with a perceived degree of resemblance must be, by definition, versions of Picasso-ism –  lesser followings, whose authenticities shade from the worthy to the damnable. (This assumption could be said to underlie the Tate show itself, which in this respect may have been unwisely conceived.)

So, according to TJ:

“There is a scare-quotes ‘Picasso’-ism, all rending and tearing and leering and terribilità, at the heart of the pseudo-culture of art from 1910 on; and off to one side there is Picasso-ism for real. Wyndham Lewis is a good example of the first …”

But in no sense was Lewis a “Picasso-ist”. The alleged “leering and terribilità” may be a confused reference to the hilarious but disturbing mannequins of Lewis’ pre-Vorticist “wild body” period, which could be said to indicate understanding and awareness of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, but do not follow its agenda. (If anything, they are closer to the primitivism of Larionov, with which they are contemporaneous.) So Lewis is damned for failing to achieve something he didn’t even attempt. (In fact, as we shall see, he declined on principle to attempt it.)

This is a very skewed view. The skewing seems to be informed by TJ’s preoccupation with the authentically revolutionary, whose focal point is manifestly Parisian, from Courbet and Manet to Pissarro and Picasso, with nods along the way to others on the boulevards. But how has he acquired such values?

In 1967 Timothy Clark was excluded from his brief membership of the British section of the Paris-based Situationist International, along with Christopher Gray and Donald Nicholson-Smith, on account of their unwanted closeness to the Americans Ben Morea and Abbie Hoffman. (“The falsifier and his mystical acolyte”, as Internationale Situationniste 12 put it. For anyone who cares, Ken Knabb’s translation of the episode is here.) Excluded from their revolutionary Eden, the three co-pro-situ’s went on to publish King Mob Echo, and Timothy Clark morphed into TJ, the academic mandarin. One can only surmise that the trauma of his expulsion must have imprinted on Clark a disproportionate anxiety about Parisian revolutionary authenticity from which he has never recovered.

But hang on, haven’t we been here before – long before? Isn’t this just a brush-up of the Francophile camp-following of Clive Bell and Roger Fry? Here is Bell:

“English painters appear to have preferred being pygmies amongst cranes to being artists amongst artists. Aurons-nous change tout ca? Qui vivra verra. The league exists; its permanent headquarters are in Paris …”

“Picasso’s is the paramount influence in Europe … The younger and more intelligent foreigners, within and without the gates of Paris, know well enough that Picasso is still their animator.”

This snobisme, this displaced chauvinism in which travel away from the Left Bank is a journey into the “suburban” and “provincial” (two of Bell’s favourite insults), is the Bloomsbury agenda which Lewis fought during his entire career. As Bloomsbury shaped the primacy of Paris for British taste, so conversely it funnelled to the Continent its own value judgements on British modernism. As Picasso is reported (by Ben Nicholson) to have remarked: “Why, when I ask about modern artists in England, am I always told about Duncan Grant?” To the end of his days Lewis opposed the reactionary effect and deadening legacy of Bloomsbury. And he never shrank from identifying the weaknesses of Picasso. As early as 1915, in Blast 2, he had made the highly perceptive critique that

“The Cubist, especially Picasso, founds his invention on the posed model, or the posed Nature-Morte, using these models almost to the extent of the Impressionist … HOWEVER MUSICAL OR VEGETARIAN A MAN MAY BE, HIS LIFE IS NOT SPENT EXCLUSIVELY AMONGST APPLES AND MANDOLINES … The placid empty planes of Picasso’s later “natures-mortes”, the bric-à-brac of bits of wall-paper, pieces of cloth, etc., tastefully arranged, wonderfully tastefully arranged, is a dead and unfruitful tendency. These tours-de-force of taste, and DEAD ARRANGEMENTS BY THE TASTEFUL HAND WITHOUT, not instinctive organisations by the living will within, are too inactive and uninventive for our northern climates, and the same objections can be made to them as to Matisse DECORATION … The whole of the modern movement, then, is, we maintain, under a cloud. That cloud is the exquisite and accomplished, but discouraged, sentimental and inactive, personality of Picasso. We must disinculpate ourselves of Picasso at once.”

Lewis put his finger astutely on the essential banality of the form-content of the School of Paris, preoccupied with “the debris of their rooms” rather than “changing our common life”. (It was essentially the same criticism he would make of James Joyce: revolutionary technique, but wrapped around Victorian content.) To the end of his days he maintained and elaborated this critique, identifying Picasso as a pasticheur, but technically impressive to the extent that he threatened to become “a stultifying obsession”.

And what an obsession! The far-sightedness of Lewis’ position is evidenced by our need, even today, to query Clark’s unthinkingly hand-me-down narrative of Modernism. But that narrative moved on. If Lewis, in his “safe Soho Bohème”, exemplifies for Clark a phoney Picasso-ism, where is the real stuff, the “serious engagement”? Why, with Gorky, de Kooning and the New York School, he informs us. In this so-familiar construction, the torch of authenticity is handed across the Atlantic circa 1939, and we slip from Modernism according to Bloomsbury to Modernism according to Clement Greenberg.

What a very passive and old fashioned account this is! Strikingly so from such a reputed Bad Boy of Art History. This is the canon of the Cold War, and an imperialist canon. It’s about time we were Leaving the Twentieth Century, and in particular leaving behind the art-historical orthodoxies of the ‘sixties.