Sunday, 31 July 2011

'Paul Nash in Pictures: Landscape and Dream'

Paul Nash, Event on the Downs, 1934-5

Paul Nash in Pictures: Landscape and Dream celebrates the life and work of Paul Nash (1889-1946), an artist of energy and vision who created iconic paintings of both world wars and explored in inimitable style the ideas and issues of the interwar years. After a period of neglect following his death, Nash’s reputation is in the ascendant again, but though we appreciate the quality of his paintings, we have perhaps lost sight of their humanity.

Bringing a fresh eye to the artist’s legacy, Paul Nash in Pictures: Landscape and Dream goes behind the scenes of twenty-two paintings to explore Nash’s life, the places and people he knew, and the times in which he lived. The book draws on diverse sources, from published books to correspondence, to create an intimate portrait of a passionate, funny, supremely imaginative artist.

This approach will be familiar to readers of the Ravilious in Pictures series published by the Mainstone Press, and the book has been produced in a similar style and with the same attention to detail. In this, the first of two proposed books on Nash, we focus on the artist’s oil paintings – the work in which he explored most thoroughly the ideas that preoccupied him. Well-known paintings like ‘The Battle of Britain’ are included alongside pictures that are reproduced for the first time. A second volume will address the artist’s watercolours, so that the two books together form a unique biography of Paul Nash – a life in pictures.

Paul Nash in Pictures: Landscape and Dream will be published by The Mainstone Press in October 2011. James Russell is available for talks and book signings. Please contact the publisher for details.

What the critics say about Ravilious in Pictures:

‘Beautiful’ (Stella magazine, Sunday Telegraph, Dec 2009)
‘Ravilious’s watercolour landscapes of the South Downs … are beautifully reproduced here 
alongside insightful essays…’ (London Review of Books, Jan 2010)
 ‘James Russell’s writing has the clarity and concision of the paintings, and is both properly informative and enjoyably readable... Glorious.’ (Andrew Lambirth, The Art Newspaper, Sept 2010)
‘A vivid portrait of the artist’ (Country Life magazine, Dec 2010)
‘Fantastic’ (Emily Rhodes, The Spectator Arts Blog, Dec 2010)
‘Alluring… convivial…’(Paul Laity, The Guardian, May 2011)

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

James Fox & 'British Masters': the Finale?

Lucian Freud, Girl with a Kitten, 1947
Whatever the excesses of the previous episodes in this BBC survey of 20th century British art, the final part was - generally speaking - sober, thoughtful and lacking in those awkward Alfred Munnings moments. It wasn't a desperately jolly programme, but then neither Francis Bacon nor Lucian Freud, two of the evening's stars, were known for their levity. Nor was Graham Sutherland, for that matter. Dr Fox was spot-on when he described the impact of the Holocaust and the Bomb on post-war artists; it was a time to reflect seriously on the human condition, and these painters duly obliged.

Graham Sutherland, Thorn Trees, 1945
Fox and team must have had an anxious time re-editing the programme to take account of Lucian Freud's death last week. I wonder whether, if he hadn't died, they would have come back to him as they did or left us with that tantalising five minutes at the beginning of the show. On hearing the news they must have rushed off to find an easily accessible Freud, and recorded the refreshingly underwritten material on the glorification of cellulite.

Francis Bacon's studio
 Some odd moments aside - did Dr Fox have to gaze for quite so long at a sunlit twig? - this was the pick of the three shows, giving us cool appraisals of several indisputably great artists and plenty of marvellous archive footage. I'm not sure what I enjoyed more, watching Francis Bacon showing off his French (and his studio, surely the finest, messiest, most authentic studio EVER), or listening to Graham Sutherland's marvellous voice. Of course we also had to have Dr F in a Soho street and Dr F on the set of Corrie, but we're used to that by now.

Keith Vaughan, Eldorado Banal, 1976

Chris Ofili, No Woman No Cry, 1998
Contrary to the concerns of some, there was nothing flippant in his treatment of Keith Vaughan's life and death, although Fox might have noted that it wasn't so much conceptual art that people preferred to Vaughan's figures as abstract painting. But then abstraction didn't get much of a look-in during the three hours of 'British Masters'. Nor did women (except, for the most part, in the role of 'friend' or 'student'), which made Fox's targeting of Tracey Emin as a peddler of inferior conceptual art slightly awkward.

The programme concluded, not surprisingly, that a great period of British painting ended with the death of Lucian Freud. Whether this is true or not remains to be seen, but one or two living artists might disagree...

Elizabeth Magill, Close to Swansea, 2002

Friday, 22 July 2011

Lucian Freud: Painting Matters

Lucian Freud, Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, 1995
So we're talking about painting AGAIN, but why? I think it's because Lucian Freud made paintings that were - are - relevant, whatever other artists they may remind us of, or refer to, whatever movement or genre they belong to. Beautifully crafted, staged and lit, they are no more 'real' than a painting by Frank Auerbach (one of Freud's favourites), but they talk to us about our world and our time.

The painting of Sue Tilley, a Job Centre manager who is now in her fifties, could be seen as a Rubenesque modern incarnation of all those reclining Venuses but you don't need to know anything about art history to appreciate either the physical presence of the woman on the couch or her significance. People seems slightly amazed that a figurative artist should have been enjoying such success in the 21st century, but has there been a time when humans have been more obsessed with the body? An overweight middle-aged woman waits for the bus beneath a vast billboard showing a svelte young model in M&S underwear; Freud makes the unspoken connection real.

Damien Hirst, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, 1992
Freud painted Sue Tilley at a time when painting in general - and figurative painting in particular - seemed to be on its last legs. Damien Hirst stole the painterly tradition of the still-life-with-dead-things and went one better with a real shark in a tank. I saw it at the time and loved it. I still love it. Hirst's best work - you can see some in an Art Fund touring exhibition, currently in Leeds - is terrifying, fascinating and relevant in an age of close-up natural history and industrial farming.

Tracey Emin, Everyone I have ever slept with, 1995

Great artists - the same goes for writers, politicians, sportsmen - are great opportunists. Freud's famously piercing stare wasn't just for intimidating people. He was looking at us, figuring out what we wanted (or didn't want) to see, seeking out not the most beautiful but the most interesting models - looking for the one that was RIGHT. Sue Tilley was one. Kate Moss had to be another. Freud was competing for our attention with artists who could offer something new and exciting, like a tent full of real-life lovers. He chose his subjects carefully and well.

Benefits Supervisor Resting, 1994
But Freud must also have known, having lived and worked among some of the great 20th century artists, that good paintings - the right paintings - last. When Paul Nash painted 'We Are Making a New World' (1918) and 'The Battle of Britain' (1941) he was competing for public attention with photographers and film makers who were convinced (as many others were) that their media were the best - being the newest and most obviously realistic. Perhaps the photographs are more harrowing, and the films more dramatic, but those paintings have endured, as Freud's will.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

James Fox, 'British Masters' & 'Paul Nash in Pictures'

Stanley Spencer, The Resurrection, Cookham, 1926
After an eye-opening first instalment, art lovers around Britain were keen to see what James Fox would get up to in the second episode of 'British Masters', and he didn't disappointment. Lingering shots of a nude Stanley Spencer (did somebody say 'flaccid'?) were followed by a piece proclaiming the virtues of obnoxious Royal Academy president Sir Alfred Munnings. A deeply unfashionable artist, we were told, and it wasn't hard to see why; it was much more difficult to see why Dr Fox had picked him out for special praise.

Until, that is, we reached the finale of that piece, in which an inebriated Munnings launched a public tirade against modern art in general and Picasso in particular. Not for the only time in the programme, the excellent archive footage and recordings had more allure than the art. 'In Search of England' was the title of a book by bestselling interwar travel writer HV Morton (whose 'In Search of London' is still in print and one of the best books EVER on the city), and in the programme Dr Fox used the documentary-travelogue form to great effect.

Nash and Spencer aside, he mostly avoided the famous names of the period and instead chose artists whose work reflected the concerns and conflicts of the age: Munnings and the 'ordinary' William Coldstream stood on two sides of a divide represented in literature by Evelyn Waugh and George Orwell. If this made interesting viewing it didn't necessarily show British art at its best, and Dr Fox will no doubt be lambasted as a reactionary himself - have we had a female artist yet? I don't think so...  However, the day was saved by the in-depth study of Spencer and a fascinating final section on John Piper, whose exquisite painting of Coventry Cathedral, still smouldering after the previous night's bombing, has a genuine, understated greatness.

The film of Piper discussing Gainsborough and Picasso was a curiosity - what a strange old bird he was - and the sequence on the 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition was fun too. I loved the old footage of people travelling by bus to Avebury, although I don't remember reading anywhere that Nash discovered the ancient stones by chance, after suffering an asthma attack on a bus. Is this really what happened?
John Piper, Interior of Coventry Cathedral, 15 November 1940

It would be good to know as I've been delving into Nash's life and work this year in preparation for a new book, 'Paul Nash in Pictures: Landscape and Dream', which will be published by the Mainstone Press in the autumn. As with the 'Ravilious in Pictures' series, the new book focuses on a selection of twenty-two paintings, each accompanied by a concise essay; we've decided to dedicate the first volume to Nash's oil paintings, which he used to express the ideas that pre-occupied him most. A second volume will focus on his gorgeous watercolours, which were admired greatly during his lifetime but which are now rarely seen in public.

Paul Nash, The Wanderer, 1911

The more I learn about Nash the more fascinating a figure he becomes. Born in 1889 he had the kind of Victorian childhood where Mother was seen for an hour in the evening. He read Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear, and from them gained a lifelong love of nonsense and wordplay, and though occasionally ill was robust enough to star in his school soccer team. Any sensible career path was cut off for him by his hopeless maths, yet critics later described his paintings as 'mathematical'. He seems to have been motivated by an intense inner vision, but took centre stage in the public debates of the time.

His struggle to reconcile modernity and Britishness was rather like Piper's. Nash tried abstraction, but quickly returned to the painting of natural forms - stones, leaves and trees. Although he greatly admired (and in some cases knew personally) Picasso, Max Ernst, de Chirico, Magritte and other modern artists, he continued to find inspiration in nature and constantly sought subjects in the British landscape that reflected his inner preoccupations; his discovery of Avebury in the summer of 1933 was part of this quest. His frequent journeys to France, including a hilarious jaunt around the Riviera with a young Edward Burra, were also part of the process.
Paul Nash, Equivalents for the Megaliths, 1935
So, another contentious and gripping programme from James Fox comes to an end, and we must wait a whole week for the next. What on earth will he say, I wonder, about post-war painting?

Monday, 18 July 2011

British Masters: Paul Nash

Paul Nash's grave in Langley
Paul Nash suffered a great deal in life but died peacefully in his sleep after making a final sketch from the balcony of a hotel in Boscombe, Dorset. His family had deep roots in Langley, a village still during his lifetime but today a sprawling suburb of Slough. It's hard to imagine from the picture, but housing estates press against this rural churchyard from every side, and entering it is like stepping into another world - not back in time, so much, as into Nash's world of characterful old trees, dramatic walls and unlikely structures.

The pillared grave he shares with his wife Margaret is a monument both modern and classical beside the mellow red brick of the wall that surrounds his family's ancestral plot. He lies close to them, connected under the earth, but apart, and watched over by a bird that might be a falcon out of Ancient Egypt. Is this the peregrine of 'Landscape from a Dream', placed here to keep an eye on the artist? Nash liked to tell people that death resembled flowers drifting in the sky. He'd experienced a vision, when he was 21 and his mother had just died after a long and distressing mental illness, of a woman's face floating in the evening sky. Or that's what he said, at any rate, and that's what he painted.

Then he abandoned the human face and figure for woods and trees, often with a bird or a flock of birds flying around. He felt very strongly, throughout his life, the personality of trees, of things and of places. Certain places seized his imagination. At Dymchurch in Kent, in the early 1920s, he painted and sketched the sea wall and the sea over and over again. More often, though, he moved restlessly from place to place, looking, sketching, trying out ideas. He and Margaret were almost constantly on the move, sometimes together, sometimes apart, and often in the midst of crisis.

And, strange as it may seem, Nash was at his most productive when life was at its darkest - in the years following his mother's death, and following his father's, and at moments when his own life hung by a thread. Whatever the debates about modernity and Britishness, about abstraction, surrealism and the rest, Nash was motivated by an awareness of and terror of death. He spent his life coming to terms with mortality, in his strange paintings of tree stumps and ancient stones and heaps of felled wood, using the language of natural forms to explore the processes of which, like it or not, we are part.

Swan Song, 1928/9
Yet he had a wonderful sense of humour, which he retained through everything. You can see it in his private letters, which are full of wit and wordplay, and also I think in some of the paintings we talk about in such solemn terms. He disliked having his picture taken and almost invariably looks stiff and formal in photographs, whereas contemporaries noticed the smile on his lips and an eye that was constantly looking for wonders.

In an age of omnipresent images it's hard to accept that we cannot rely on visual evidence for Nash's character - or even appearance. Instead we have to dig out old books and read both his descriptions of the world and other people's descriptions of him. He loved Henry Purcell and American jazz, Botticelli and the cartoonists of the New Yorker; the American humourist James Thurber said of Nash, 'At the time there was no one in England, or anywhere else outside the US, who knew our comic art so well, or appreciated it so heartily.’

Event on the Downs, 1935
This isn't to say that Paul Nash wasn't a serious artist - he most certainly was. He produced some of his best paintings in the face of, or in response to death, and he served as a war artist in both World Wars, and between the wars he got embroiled in all the artistic debates of the age. Yet he was also charming and funny, a pretty good singer of old songs, a lover of life both cerebral and earthy.

Parkland near Nash's family home at Iver Heath

Vision and Place: Paul Nash & Iain Sinclair

Iain Sinclair's new book 'Ghost Milk' is dedicated to 'the huts of the Manor Garden Allotments' which, you may remember, were brushed aside in 2007, during the more general bulldozing of the London 2012 development site in Stratford, East London. Of course you can't build an Olympic stadium and all the ancillary gubbins without altering the immediate environment quite substantially, but there was something particularly sad about the destruction of the four-and-a-half acre allotment site on the bank of the River Lea.

While 'Ghost Milk' finds Sinclair at his most incendiary, applying the blowtorch of his furious prose to the 2012 London Olympics, it is this dedication that really struck me. It reminded me that, behind the blistering prose, exhausting digressions and peculiar obsessions that make reading Sinclair a challenge, the self-styled 'Travelodge tramp' is a Romantic with an extraordinary sense of place.

This comes across most strongly in my favourite book of his, 'Lights Out for the Territory', in which ordinary London streets, parks and patches of wasteland are transformed into a strange, poetic realm. He has a sharp eye and a feel for the underappreciated, but what makes this book really come to life is the author's pursuit of private obsessions. He is on a quest, not to fulfil a publisher's commission (as seems to be the case in 'London Orbital') but to find patterns in the city that are intensely meaningful to him and, by proxy to us. I've read the book numerous times, still find it bewildering, and love it partly for that reason. At the same time I think there's a simple underlying premise, suggested by the title, which is from the end of 'Huckleberry Finn', when Huck (the narrator) tells us his book is finished:
Sinclair: the obsessive's obsessive

'But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she's going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can't stand it. I been there before.'

You get the feeling that Sinclair doesn't want to be civilised and he doesn't like civilisation to be forced on others, hence his furious opposition to the development surrounding the London Olympics. Like the raggedy Huck Finn, the author and his city are already civilised, in their own, homegrown way; Sinclair loves the city as it has evolved, and 'Lights Out for the Territory' is, as much as anything else, about this organic place with its myriad obscure connections.

Avebury in 1905, PA Hooper
When I read the dedication above I thought immediately of another place and time, and an artist with an acute sense of 'genius loci'. When Paul Nash discovered Avebury in the summer of 1933 he was at a low ebb, both artistically and personally. In fact he was recovering from the first major attack of the bronchial illness that would eventually kill him, and had travelled to the Wiltshire village of Marlborough with his old friend Ruth Clark to recuperate.

They took the bus to Avebury and, when they arrived, Nash was transfixed by what he saw. He had spent 20 years exploring his inner visions in the real landscape, finding inspiration in the woods of Buckinghamshire, on the battlefields of the Western Front and on the Dymchurch sea wall. Here was a place at once exciting and strange, where the ancient past lay undisturbed beneath accumulated layers of time.

Paul Nash, Landscape of the Megaliths, 1934
'The great stones were then in their wild state, so to speak,' he later noted. 'Some were half covered by the grass, others stood up in cornfields were entangled and overgrown in the copses, some were buried under the turf. But they were wonderful and disquieting, and, as I saw them then, I shall always remember them.'

Keiller's men raising a stone
By the late 1930s, when Nash wrote this, the landscape of Avebury had been transformed, thanks to the unstinting efforts of Alexander Keiller, the marmalade millionaire and archaeologist. Keiller's aim was both to preserve the architecture of the great stones for posterity and to return the site to something approximating its original state. Stones that had toppled over were set upright, those that were buried were dug up and reinstated, and missing stones were marked by concrete posts. What visitors see today is largely Keiller's work.

I understand that the allotment holders of Stratford will be returned to their site after the Olympics, but this isn't the point. The place, which evolved over time and held within it all manner of stories, memories and ghosts, has gone, as the old neglected Avebury disappeared when the first megalith was re-erected.

RIP Manor Garden Allotments
'But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she's going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can't stand it. I been there before.'

Friday, 15 July 2011

Small is Beautiful: Kettle's Yard and the Fry

'Von Ribbentrop in St Ives' at Kettle's Yard
Thank you to everyone who came to my Ravilious talk in Saffron Walden on Wednesday, and to the organisers - Nigel and Iris Weaver and staff at the Fry Art Gallery. I was just reading a post by Jonathan Jones about cuts at Tate Liverpool and it made me appreciate all the more the virtues of small, quirky galleries. I feel the same about bookshops, but we'll come back to them another day...

I had to go to Cambridge en route to Essex and, while there, braved the bikes and crowds of French schoolkids muddling about in the road to visit Kettle's Yard. I hadn't been for years and had completely forgotten that the permanent collection lives not in the gallery but in the house itself, the former home of Tate curator and collector Jim Ede and his wife Helen.

Having worked at the Tate during the 1920s and 1930s, Jim amassed a diverse collection of British art from the period, and in 1966 he donated house and contents to Cambridge University. His vision was to create not 'an art gallery or museum, nor ... simply a collection of works of art reflecting my taste or the taste of a given period.'

HS 'Jim' Ede at Kettle's Yard
Christopher Wood, Jean Bourgoint, 1926
Instead he sought to preserve 'a continuing way of life from these last fifty years, in which stray objects, stones, glass, pictures, sculpture, in light and in space, have been used to make manifest the underlying stability.'

At a time when exhibitions tend to be dominated by great walls of explanatory text, it is a pleasure indeed to wander around this eccentric dwelling, looking at paintings in a domestic context and, quite naturally, unlabelled. With interest in 20th century British art on the rise, I can think of few better places to see work by Ben Nicholson, Alfred Wallis, Winifred Nicholson, David Jones, Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore, Christopher Wood and others, alongside work by modern European artists. The selection is eclectic, reflecting not the depth of Ede's wallet but the warmth of his friendships. The paintings, sculptures and other objects BELONG in the house and are all the more enjoyable for that.

Kettle's Yard interior
The strangeness of the experience is heightened by the fact that you have to ring a doorbell for admission, much as if you were popping round to visit a friend; the staff are helpful but you can't get hold of a guidebook (which has a numbered plan of all the art) until you've been all the way round. When I was there a woman was trying to buy a guidebook but had given up her handbag, as requested, at the front door. You'll have to go and get it, she was told firmly - NOT the handbag, JUST the purse.

From there it's a half-hour drive to Saffron Walden and the Fry Art Gallery, where 'Ravilious in Essex' is entering its final month - 4000 visitors and counting. The Fry was also established by public-minded collectors, a succession of them in fact, going back more than a century - it takes its name from a scion of the Bristol family of chocolate makers who owned it in the 19th century. Nigel and Iris Weaver discovered the place in a ruinous condition when they moved to Saffron Walden in the 1980s, restored it and in 1987 opened the building to the public once again. Like Tate Britain in miniature, it is a gorgeous building with a fascinating permanent collection.

With a focus on the artists of Great Bardfield (John Aldridge, Edward Bawden, Tirzah Garwood/Ravilious, Kenneth Rowntree...), the Fry has become the principal port of call for admirers of Eric Ravilious, who lived in north-west Essex for the last eleven years of his life. Paintings, lithographs, Wedgwood china and wood engravings are beautifully presented, with a collection of the artist's wood blocks a particular treat.

David Oelman at the Fry... now those books look familiar!
Both Kettle's Yard and the Fry have mildly eccentric opening hours, so do check before you set out. I was just too early for the Kettle's Yard show 'Von Ribbentrop in St Ives', which opens on July 16th. 'Ravilious in Essex' runs until August 14.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

British Masters: Pure Genius

Walter Sickert, Mornington Crescent Nude, 1907
Does the decade 1910-1919 represent the best period of British art EVER? Was David Bomberg the greatest painter on the PLANET? Is James Fox trying to bring our artistic heritage to life with an audacity and verve that BEGGARS BELIEF?

David Bomberg, The Mud Bath, 1914
If we discount the misery of golfers who tuned in by mistake, last night's 'British Masters' on BBC4 was an hour of almost unalloyed joy. Raised to believe in the superiority of French, German, Italian, American, Spanish and Russian 20th century artists to our own, it was pleasure indeed to see the youthful professor fix the camera with a steely eye as he described Paul Nash's 'We Are Making a New World' as the greatest war painting EVER.
A complete disregard for the broader streams of art history, such as the experiments of Picasso and Braque, allowed us to revel in the inventiveness of Bomberg and the dastardly Wyndham Lewis. With Dr Fox as a sort of art historical Dr Who we explored a parallel universe in which British artists invented modern art. Walter Sickert was the first artist EVER to portray poverty and crime in paint. Mark Gertler predicted the entire history of the 20th century in a painting of a merry-go-round.

If art history students were left slightly bemused by this interpretation, it was great TV, by turns dramatic, funny and moving. I thoroughly enjoyed being lured into Sickert's painting of a murdered prostitute, and then blamed for the killing. Nevinson's story was nicely told, as was Nash's. My favourite moment, though, was when the blinds were raised to reveal the painted interior of the Sandham Memorial Chapel. Looking at Stanley Spencer's extraordinary visions of friendship, hope and redemption, I was on the presenter's side - the chapel's interior is a work of art to rival any.

Stanley Spencer, The Resurrection of the Soldiers, Sandham Memorial Chapel, 1920s

By coincidence, I was watching 'Ways of Seeing' on Youtube last week and couldn't help but notice the contrast between James Fox's approach and John Berger's. You could probably watch them side by side in different windows if your computer's fast enough. In the first episode of his fabulous series - which was made in response to Kenneth Clark's equally great but rather less confrontational series 'Civilisation' - Berger sought to expose the ways paintings are exploited by all and sundry for their own ends. The essential qualities of a painting, he told us, are stillness and silence. Anything added, such as music, or the movement of a camera to pick out details, is added, whether by advertiser or art historian, for a reason.

Dr Fox spent an hour last night using every trick in the TV presenter's book to catch our attention, to make us look and to share his passion for British art. Good for him.

Friday, 8 July 2011

Mary Fedden at the RWA

Mary Fedden, Fruit Dish, 1992

These are strange times at the Royal West of England Academy, an institution which has traditionally served the region's artists with a genteel lack of concern for footfall or fashion. With the appointment of a new director, Trystan Hawkins, the old dowager has been given a thorough makeover, with a cafe installed where the New Gallery used to be and a summer exhibition designed to pull in the crowds and - judging by the merchandise on offer - part them from their cash.

There's a giant Damien Hirst sculpture of a 1960s Spastics Society collecting box on the balcony and an exhibition, combining behind-the-scenes photographs and paintings, of professional ballroom dancers. The paintings are by Jack Vettriano, who is 'arguably one of the country's most popular living artists', according to the exhibition flyer. The photos, by Jeanette Jones, capture the tension, excitement  and fear of a tough competitive world; the paintings offer a less emotionally intense, more glamorous vision.

Mary Fedden, Window Still Life, 1994
The president of the RWA, Simon Quadrat, has recently resigned in protest at the populist programming, and you can see his point. The director's response is that people will come to see Hirst and Vettriano and, having paid their £5, will have a look at paintings by Lisa Milroy, sculpture and works on paper by Elisabeth Frink, and a mini-retrospective of Mary Fedden.

There are three gorgeous etchings made by Frink in the 1970s, but I really came to see Fedden, an RA and former president of the RWA who is now in her nineties and still painting. She was born in Bristol during World War One and, after studying at the Slade, returned to paint and teach here. The Second World War and marriage to Julian Trevelyan took her away from the city, and today she lives beside the Thames in London.

Mary Fedden, Red Tulips, 2010
The Portland Gallery in London held a major retrospective of her career a couple of years ago, but the RWA show is different. For one thing, it has the great virtue of being small. While a big show can be a lot of fun I think I prefer a one-room exhibit; rather than rush from picture to picture, trying to take them all in, you can relax, focus on one or two favourite paintings, and compare work easily. It's fascinating to see a still life painted in the early 1950s (and perhaps in need of a clean) beside one made in the 1990s.

There are some intimate details - a watercolour of an elephant painted for a friend - but most of the work is of a familiar kind: still lifes of fruit and flowers and jugs, with perhaps the view from a window beyond, also some landscapes. What one tends to lose when looking at reproductions, apart from the texture of the paint, are the subtle variations in colour that add so much to the feeling of a painting. There really is no substitute for seeing a painting live...

Perhaps the next stage in the 'Your Paintings' scheme should be for participating museums and galleries to put on a whole host of one-room shows - not massive, expensive affairs but small, manageable exhibitions. Look what 'Ravilious in Essex' has done for the Fry Art Gallery and tourism in Saffron Walden (3000 extra visitors in a couple of months). Many other artists have a dedicated hard core of fans who would willingly travel for a small, well-thought-out, show.

Mary Fedden, Lilies, Bird and Zebra, 1999
The pictures shown are from the database of Mary Fedden's work at the Portland Gallery, London, which represents her.

You can see photos of the work hanging at the RWA here (scroll down a bit)...

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

'Your Paintings': Celebrities vs Art Historians

Stanley Spencer, The Scarecrow (1934)
Yesterday I made the mistake of visiting the BBC website devoted to the 'Your Paintings' project. An hour later I was still there, touring the online galleries with Rory Bremner. Or was it Mary Beard? It doesn't matter. In the end I had to watch all of them, to find out who did the job better, the celebrities or the art historians.

First up was James Fox, the debonair art historian who is fast becoming the BBC's go to man. He gave us a brief preview of the upcoming series 'British Masters', which sounds like a golf tournament but is in fact a wholesale reappraisal of 20th century British art. Stanley Spencer's 'Scarecrow' (1934) is a treat, although surely it is less a prediction of coming turmoil, as Fox suggests, than it is a reference back to the abiding influence of the Great War.

A good start for the experts, but here comes Frank Skinner, veteran comedian and footie fan. He is not, he tells us, an art historian, but he does like to visit galleries and that - he thinks - is enough. Is it? He takes for the theme of his tour a specific subject, The Annunciation, as depicted by sundry artists. Botticelli's version is stunning, and Skinner's commentary - 'Mary looks like she's opened the front door to put the milk out' - entertaining. He gets in a bit of a pickle later on with a discussion of Paul Delvaux but ends on a high note with an actual pickle, or gherkin, in Carlo Crivelli's painting of the subject.
Botticelli's Annunciation - Mary 'putting the milk out'

In all, a bright, entertaining survey from Skinner, so let's try another celebrity, Monty Don. It's clear from the outset that the gardener's gardener Knows What He Likes in a painting. He likes Cezanne so much that he spent a year in France experiencing the landscape, and he likes Ivon Hitchens and he likes Stanley Spencer. The latter's 'Wisteria at Englefield' (1954), Don tells us, was painted from a child's viewpoint, adding 'Spencer was a very small man, famously'.

Time for another art historian: Gus Casely-Hayford. Here's someone who knows what he's talking about, although his tour of artists on the edge plots a rather odd route from Richard Dadd and Blake to a discussion of slavery. Solid from the experts, though. I think they're winning.

For the celebrities, here's Rory Bremner, with a selection of paintings accompanied by impressions of the Royal Family and others. And some interesting info too, sneaked in among the laughs. Peter Blake made of the printer's mis-registration a new technique in 'The Beatles 1962' (1963-8).

Elizabeth Magill, Close to (Swansea), 2002
A delicate touch from Bremner, then, followed by solid performances by Matt Baker (a TV presenter with a fairly conservative taste in landscape painting) and historian Dan Snow. Yinka Shonibare presents a wonderfully eclectic selection including Elizabeth Magill's gorgeous 'Close to (Swansea)' (2002), then The Reduced Shakespeare Company ups the tempo with a whistlestop tour of bard-related painting. The art experts need something good here. Can critic Alastair Sooke deliver?

He has a good subject: money. A tour of the nation's free-to-view masterpieces gives us Monet, Van Gogh, Picasso, Titian and some big fat numbers to go with them. The National Gallery and the National Gallery of Scotland came up with £50 million to buy Titian's 'Diana and Actaeon' from the Duke of Sutherland. But it could be worth far more.
Titian's 'Diana and Actaeon' - a cool £50 million
It looks like the experts have it, but wait! Here's sex and relationship expert Tracey Cox - sorry, boys, she's definitely not an art historian - with a fascinating, sensitive tour of paintings depicting love in the widest sense. 'During orgasm, men's brains completely fire during the moment of pleasure, and the female brain, actually shuts down and lets go.' Could this be the clincher?

Only one to go, and it's Mary Beard, a Professor of Classics, but not an art historian. Is she a celebrity or an expert? Or a centaur-like combination of the two? Who cares. She's bold, erudite and straightforward and her tour is by turns illuminating - Classical artists showed Perseus nude and Andromeda clothed, whereas Renaissance artists did the opposite - and shocking. It ends with a picture of a young woman suckling her starving father - a popular Roman theme, we are told, although the painting shown of Cimon and Pero is by Abraham Bloemaert not Carlo Cignani.

When in Rome... Abraham Bloemaert, Cimon and Pero (early C17)
So who wins? I'm not sure, but old-fashioned art history (focusing on technique, influences and so on) seems to be the loser. And who should the BBC hire to front an hour-long version, if such a programme were to be made? It would have to be Professor Beard. How about a BBC4 special on Classical themes in painting?