Thursday, 27 August 2015

Reflections on Ravilious at Dulwich

Ship's Screw on a Railway Truck, 1940 (Ashmolean)
Now that the Ravilious show is nearly over, I wanted to say thankyou to everyone who made the minor trek to Dulwich this summer.** Do go and see their MC Escher exhibition, which is coming up next - it should make a fascinating follow-up to Ravilious.

I still can't quite believe people have been queuing up for Rav, but perhaps I'm looking at this the wrong way round. Perhaps we should be marveling that it has taken so long for such a wonderful artist to achieve deserved public recognition - not that it's particularly unusual for an artist to achieve renown long after their death. To take one example, Vermeer was just one 17th century Dutch artist among many until his cause was taken up two hundred years later.

I was surprised by the enthusiastic response shown by critics to the exhibition, which I think bodes well for the continuing reassessment of 20th century British art, particularly figurative painting of the 1920s and 1930s. I'm looking forward to the David Jones exhibition coming up at Pallant House in October, which promises to be filled with rarely-seen wonders.

The beautiful new book on his work as a watercolourist and printmaker, by Ariane Bankes and Paul Hills, makes for interesting comparison with the Ravilious catalogue, especially as Rav was a big fan of Jones and visited his London shows in the late 1920s.

It seems a long time since I walked into the exhibition rooms at Dulwich to see the paintings all lined up against the walls, still in their crates and boxes. For the previous eighteen months I had been moving thumbnail images of the pictures around a scale plan of the gallery, which was stuck with blutac all over the landing walls. Every now and again a picture would fall off, to be transported on the sole of someone's foot around the house, so that tiny planes and greenhouses would turn up in the most unlikely places. To see the pictures as large as life and all together was very moving.

I imagined that the hang would bring some kind of closure, but the opposite was true. Being able to look at so many watercolours up close I saw so much that I had missed; I wanted to rewrite the catalogue there and then, but I don't think the publishers would have let me. Then there were all the observations made by critics and visitors, which in many cases made me look at a picture afresh. More than ever I appreciate that anyone with an intelligent gaze can add to our understanding of an artist or their work.

Finally, it has been extraordinary to meet so many people through the exhibition: lenders, fellow writers, artists, enthusiasts. On one memorable occasion I stood in front of a painting with the son of a naval officer portrayed in the picture. More recently I had a letter from a woman whose mother is, in all likelihood, one of the staff shown in the underground control rooms - of which more anon...



** According to Dulwich Picture Gallery, over 85,000 people visited the Ravilious show, their highest every turn-out!



 


13 comments:

Steerforth said...

Congratulations on such a well-curated exhibition - a critical and commercial success. The main surprise for me was how much I loved the war paintings. I'd always admired them, but never felt as emotionally engaged as I did with the landscapes. However, at Dulwich I kept having to go back and look again.

It has clearly been a tipping point for Ravilious's reputation. Even two years ago, I knew people who'd never heard of him. This year, one of them recommended the exhibition to me.

The only downside is that my Ravilious print, which I've had for years, now looks as ubiquitous as "Keep Calm and Carry On!". But I don't mind. I'm just delighted that Ravilious is now a household name.

James Russell said...

Thanks Steerforth - and glad you're blogging again!

Norman Boyd said...

I came out of the exhibition with an enormous smile, for which I'm grateful to you and the Dulwich. There is nothing like seeing the originals with their vibrant coloured lines sketched in to indicate swathes of colours, beautiful. Did I miss the exhibition catalogue or was it decided your offerings to date have most of the pictures in them already? Anyway I wanted to say a big thank you

James Russell said...

Thanks Norman - annoyingly the catalogue is out of print at the moment, but I'm assured it will be back on sale soon.

Jeremy Cooper said...

I'm afraid I found the Ravilious show very disappointing, mainly because it was so badly lit. The lights were of exactly the right temperature to bleach the colours out of all but the lithographs. Or is it that all the photographs I've ever seen of R's works have had the colours saturated (as in the photo above and on the right of this site) to make them more appealing to a mass market? Over-saturation certainly applied to all of the prints and photos available in the shop, with different renderings of the same painting looking completely different!

Then I also found his texturing technique (which doesn't show on photos) tediously mannered and overused. All that blotchy white of the paper breaking up pretty well any surface.

In short, I really liked R's works until I saw them for real. What a pity.

James Russell said...

Interesting points, Jeremy. Yes, the colours tend to be saturated in print, though less so I think in the catalogue. Personally I enjoy the texturing technique, but if I didn't I probably wouldn't have curated the exhibition!

E Berris said...

I agree with Jeremy about the disappointing differences between actual paintings and the postcards and reproductions in gallery shops generally - but I'm sorry he did not like the textures. I thought they were amazingly subtle and varied and incredible to achieve in watercolour. But I know everyone's responses to art are individual and you can be surprised or disappointed in exhibitions quite unexpectedly.

James Russell said...

Absolutely!

Anonymous said...

Living in the sticks we are not able to come to the big city very often but made the effort just to see the exhibition. So glad we did....Thank you

Adam said...

Glad to hear that there are plans for reprint on the catalogue...any idea when it will be back in print? Great exhibition - lit up a particularly dull, rain day!

James Russell said...

Thanks Adam - catalogue should be available this month. If you want more info, feel free to contact Philip Wilson Publishers.

Peter Ashley said...

James, this exhibition was an absolute tour-de-force, thank you. I was taken as a Father's Day treat by my daughter, followed by lunch in one of my favourite restaurants. Over which we discussed our favourites, mine being (and one that has always struck a deep note with me) the ship's propeller in the snow. And lo! you have used it here.

James Russell said...

Thanks Peter - I love the propeller. The first time I saw it was at the Ashmolean, where it lay in a box... a treasure!

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