Tuesday, 14 December 2010

The Art of Germany... and Ravilious the Letter-Writer

George Grosz - Grey Day (1921)
There were moments during the just finished series 'The Art of Germany' when a viewer might, having flicked to BBC4 unexpectedly, have imagined that this was a new Steve Coogan vehicle - a parody of an art programme. Is it just the physical resemblance, or is there something in Andrew Graham-Dixon's deadpan delivery that suggests a comic mind at work behind the scenes? Or is it the subject perhaps? The art of Germany, at least in this survey, has rarely been light-hearted. Romantic idealists, tortured souls, a generation scarred by war, the Austrian watercolourist and his strutting thugs, post-war doom and gloom... No room for pre-Raphaelite beauty in this picture, nor Frenchmen with waterlilies, nor soup cans. I had never thought before last night that Joseph Beuys was fun but, compared to what went before, he was.

Last night's final instalment seemed all the more weighty, given that I'd spent the day reading through Eric Ravilious's letters. As a painter Ravilious had a touch so light that his watercolours can sometimes appear almost translucent, and he was as good a letter-writer as he was an artist. Writing to his lover Helen Binyon every day and occasionally twice a day, he noted with a poet's laconic phraseology the minor excitements of life in rural Essex.

Eric Ravilious - Village Street (1936)
One morning he woke up to see the aged Castle Hedingham postman coming down the street: 

'He took his time of course – he has a zigzag course and a shuffle that has all time before it – and until each letter has been looked at carefully with a lamp you don’t get it.'

And after visiting his wife Tirzah in hospital after the birth of their first child, he noted: 

'They produce tea at every visit and any hour and actually offer cigarettes. I didn’t know hospitals were ever like this.’

On another occasion he reported with some amusement how an earnest Paul Nash tried to persuade him and others to take Surrealism and the other art movements of the time more seriously. Ravilious took his work seriously, but he looked on the world with a humorous eye.

Not that the German artists discussed so brilliantly by Andrew Graham-Dixon were lacking in wit. A brutal satirical humour pervades the work of George Grosz and a more subtle variant the paintings of Max Beckmann. We were treated to the sight of Georg Baselitz's scandalous 1963 work 'Die Gross Nacht im Eimer', although AGD stood in front of it to obscure the giant phallus.

Anselm Kiefer - Milky Way (1985-7)
I have spent some time in Germany, particularly in Cologne and Berlin, and as I watched I tried to square the BBC4 version of the country's art history with what I knew. Was it all really that heavy? That grim? Who did AGD leave out?

Anselm Kiefer? Surely an artist who should have been included, given his fascination for German history and culture - but by no means a light-hearted painter. Then there are Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke, whose work in the 1960s shared some qualities with Pop Art, but not its lightness.

These last two lived and worked in Cologne, which is home to one of Europe's best modern art galleries, Museum Ludwig. When it opened in 1986, the Ludwig was one of the first museums devoted exclusively to 20th century art, and in particular to the art Hitler termed degenerate. In fact the initial donation of work that was to become the Museum Ludwig collection was made in 1946 by a local lawyer, who had amassed and preserved work by Kirchner, Eric Hechel, Otto Mueller and other Expressionist painters.

Among these are paintings of great beauty and sensitivity - intense, perhaps, but full of colour. The dynamic use of colour was what first attracted me to Expressionist painting, and my (slightly hazy) memory of first visiting Museum Ludwig is of a fantastic room full of bold, energetic paintings. I loved Kirchner and the rest not because their work was grim but because it was spirited and exciting.
Otto Mueller - Lovers (1919)

This is a minor quibble. German art has been woefully - if not surprisingly - neglected in this country, and Andrew Graham-Dixon has provided us with a scholarly, entertaining introduction.

Ravilious, incidentally, was well aware of growing international tensions and the threat of war from 1936 onwards, but prefered not to dwell on the subject. Here, he reports to Helen Binyon an encounter in 'the Gentlemen' at the Geological Museum in London (July 36):
I was there in the morning and three or four window cleaners were having a quiet smoke. One said 'What's this place then' - 'Oh it's geology' - and then slowly and thoughtfully 'it's appertaining to the minerals what's in the earth, what's in the bowels of the earth'. After a bit somebody said 'I wonder how long it would take a poor bugger to clean all the windows by himself.'

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