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: Tate Britain

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.

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Baby Jesus meets the Sphinx

Happy Christmas! And for a Christmas card, here is Glyn Warren Philpot’s startling Repose on the Flight into Egypt (1922), currently on the wall at Tate Britain. (Click to enlarge.) I don’t know much about Philpot. Google him and you get a bunch of deftly done portraits, many of young men. All a bit ‘nineties at first, but in his later years (he died in 1937) he went rather more Deco, though not always with entirely happy results.

Here the satyrs and fauns of a departing world recognise in the crumpled figures of the exhausted family the beginnings of the new age, and in the sleeping baby the power that will revolutionise the universe. There is a beautiful and generous sympathy in this. In the Christ child the Sphinx sees the definitive answer to her riddle – a human. God as a human. The toppled colossus from whose shoulder the Sphinx alights, and against which Joseph rests his back, is an Ozymandias among half buried lintels and columns, ruins of the old religions.

The only comparable image I can think of is Max Klinger’s Christ on Olympus, where the resurrected saviour is greeted by the entire astonished pagan pantheon. It’s a wonderful conceit, though Klinger’s grandiosity lets him down a bit in places.

The commentary on Repose on the Tate site maybe dwells too much on the phallic cactus at lower left, but does so in the context of Philpot’s attempt to reconcile his Christianity (he was a Roman convert) with his homosexuality. What an indictment on the churches that this is still an issue for many, ninety years on …

Mandergate latest! Sculpture shock! Hepworths through the roof!

Sculpture shock! Hepworths through the roof!

Wolverhampton’s very own million pound Hepworth sculpture has recently been removed from its public place of pride in the Mander Centre and is at risk of a sell off. In a previous post I suggested that owners RBS might sit on it, waiting for even more value to accrue. No such wait is now necessary, it seems. Can the Mander Centre’s Hepworth really be worth over four million smackers already?

Bonkers prices: 'Figure for a Landscape'

Bonkers prices: ‘Figure for a Landscape’

On 25th June, in a few minutes of light headed billionaire bidding at a Christie’s sale of modern British art, the value of Hepworths instantly quadrupled, making Dame Barbara officially the second most expensive female sculptor of all time (after Louise Bourgeois). The Telegraph’s vivid account of the auction makes fascinating reading for those of us who still live in the real world.

Focus of attention was a Hepworth bronze comparable with Wolverhampton’s Rock Form, titled Figure for a Landscape, and offloaded by a bankrupt Norwegian gallery. Figure swept past its million pound estimate to become the object of a prolonged punch-up between two bidders, or rather between their saleroom agents. The winner was an anonymous “overseas property developer”, who has at least promised to put Figure for a Landscape on public show at one of his London developments. Under-bidder was Yorkshire furniture billionaire (and major Conservative Party donor) Graham Kirkham, who only blinked when the object of his desire had reached £3.65 million. (That’s £4.17 million to the buyer, once you count the commission and charges. As a point of comparison, £4 million happens to be Oxfam’s target for their appeal for the victims of Zimbabwe’s cholera epidemic, where deaths have passed 1,000.)

Baron Kirkham of Old Cantley

Baron Kirkham of Old Cantley

On the one hand, Lord Kirkham’s bidding may have pumped up exponentially the cost to himself of his next pot at a Hepworth. On the other, his vigorous urge to collect may not have been entirely sated by the compensation prizes – a smaller Hepworth, an Elisabeth Frink and an F E McWilliam – that he did pick up the same evening at the record-busting £21 million sale. There can’t be too many super league Hepworth buyers around, so could he (or his advisor, Andrew Hobart of Pyms Gallery) perhaps be waiting in the wings to snap up Rock Form (Porthcurno), once all the fuss has died down? Frankly, I’ve absolutely no idea; it’s just a thought.

As it so happens, Dame Barbara’s blockbuster retrospective next year at Tate Britain will do little to depress the market value of Hepworths. It’s wonderful to see her importance recognised, but the money thing is getting somewhat out of hand. And poor old Wolverhampton is the loser.

Reputationally challenged

Blue Meanie ...

Blue Meanie …

As a condition of the big taxpayer bail-out of RBS, all their 308 branches south of the border are soon to be re-glossed under the dormant (but trusted) banking name of “Williams & Glyn”, ready for a standalone flotation. The old brand still looks stubbornly toxic. There’s no doubt that the folks at RBS are still feeling a bit reputationally challenged, and this is definitely to our advantage as we keep pushing for the Hepworth’s return.

So please, if you’re interested – keep up the letters and emails. As I write, the likes on our Facebook page have just passed the 400 mark, in less than a week. Brilliant! It all helps! Make some noise!

City centre MP calls for the return of the Hepworth

Paul Uppal: "Put it back!"

Paul Uppal: “Put it back!”

Paul Uppal, MP for Wolverhampton South West, which includes the city centre, has joined the calls for the sculpture’s return to the Mander Centre. In a recent message to a worried constituent, he said:

“I appreciate the concerns that you and other shoppers have raised about the statue’s future.

I have written to the Mander Centre’s Manager, Nicholas Pitt, to obtain further clarification on why it was removed, and to seek his assurances that it will be put back on display for shoppers to enjoy.”

Civic & Historical Society: back to its rightful place!

Wolverhampton Civic and Historical Society (the blue plaque people) have also called for the sculpture’s return, linking to our campaign on their Facebook page. Secretary Claire Darke stated:

“We share the concerns about the Barbara Hepworth sculpture and look forward to it being returned to its rightful place.”

Kurt thoughts: Britters in Schwitain

From notes made on my way round the Schwitters in Britain show at Tate Britain:

Constant tensions between colour and texture, forms and references.

Colour – So much brown! But the landscapes and portraits too, even in the skin tones, appear predominantly brown. Seems regressive – the dull cubist palette of Picasso & Braque. But his colour cheers up a bit once he is released from the internment camp!

Forms – Constructivist? How much chance? What laws do his compositions obey? Any?

References (found material) – Social & personal history. He claimed to sit light to the original significances of found material and of elements of text. But it clearly wasn’t so. (An abundance of bus tickets indicates a prevalence of buses. In London, judging by the collages, he ate an awful lot of Liquorice Allsorts. He does not appear to have eaten Kendal Mint Cake during the Lake District period.)

Untitled, 1942

Untitled, 1942 (Note Liquorice Allsorts)

[Thought: a philatelist notices an extremely rare stamp glued into a Schwitters collage … Thought: British Counter-intelligence analyses his British collages, suspecting them to be coded messages.]

In the collages the upside-down elements (writing, images) are sometimes quite dominant. Did Schwitters work both/all ways up until the final resolution?

His process? Tension between congruences and incongruences. Exercises in daring. Relentless oddness. Defies Ben Nicholson’s tastefulness. Nicholson called Schwitters “an ass and a bore”. (Nicholson could be, in Sven Berlin’s words, “a cold, spiteful little sod”.)

The later paintings and small sculptures move towards a more lyrical, clean, hard edged colourfulness, lose their grubbiness, even take on a strange hint of style. But this threat of taste is always carefully recuperated by some element or small fragment of anti-taste. Allure, then deflection. A sideways step.

Lovely Portrait, 1942

Schwitters, ‘Lovely Portrait,’ 1942

Schwitters, portrait of george Johnston, 1946

Schwitters, portrait of George Johnston, 1946

Asger Jorn, 'The avant-garde doesn't give up painting,' 1962

Asger Jorn, ‘The avant-garde doesn’t give up painting,’ 1962

In Untitled (Lovely Portrait), 1942, Schwitters paints over an existing Victorian portrait, leaving only the face from the original. See Asger Jorn’s interventions (“defigurations”). But unlike Jorn, Schwitters did not disrespect the original, given that he was a conventional portraitist himself. See also Joyce Cary’s Gully Jimson (The Horse’s Mouth) buying an old Rembrandt to paint over in place of a new canvas. Also, Duchamp’s “anti-readymade” notion of using a Rembrandt as an ironing board – though that works only as an idea, not as an object. The portrait painted over by Schwitters as an anti-readymade?

[Thought: in 1943 in London Schwitters was in contact with Jankel Adler. Adler was in close contact with Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde. They could have seen Schwitters’s work on show alongside Adler’s in 1944. Could Schwitters have met the Two Roberts? If so, they may hardly have understood each other.]

Despite the two new works in this show (elaborate, self-indulgent, ignorable) commissioned to honour the “Lake District legacy” of Schwitters, there is no such legacy. One wet Lakeland weekend some years ago, I failed to find any trace of his time in Ambleside. (Though recently the Armitt Collection has started to pull things together.)

Before I viewed this show, I thought that I understood Schwitters’s work. Now I find that I don’t. But I like it all the more for that.

Two Francises

Talk of Francis Bacon (previous post) brings to mind an odd experience at the Tate Britain Bacon mega-show in 2009. One gets used to the way that staring at a Bacon starts to re-shape your reality; in particular, there are structural features of the Tate gents’ and basement café that, on an after-viewing visit, plunge you right back into Bacon-world. Well, they do me, anyway. But on this occasion, after prolonged exposure to multiple images, I found myself subject to the strong, hallucinatory conviction that all these paintings had been done by Frankie Howerd.

Which kind of makes sense. I wrote some verses about it:

Francis

Francis Bacon at Tate Britain

Our mass of meat packs out the room,
the air is rank with sexual doom,
the curtain turns a streaky sort of black.
We turn to see our own condition
glassed on canvas in reflection,
gurning at a pope who’s gawping back.

Francis

Light pulls draped in pinkish spasm,
profiles raked in ectoplasm,
alter our perceptions in their making:
handrails round the gents’ urinal,
café figures hunched and spinal –
these conspire to recreate a Bacon.

But Frankie B’s conglomerates
put me in mind of Frankie H,
a similar iconic sad old sot.
Figures in a crucifixion,
mangled spam, spilt in depiction –
Missus, no! It’s Francis. Titter ye not!

Titter ye not, indeed. Did John Deakin ever photograph Howerd? I think not, but he ought to have done. The closest I’ve found is a great photo by John Claridge, above, in which many of the tonal shapes within the facial landscape uncannily echo those in Bacon’s self portrait. More “confirmation bias”!

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.

“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.