Saturday, 28 April 2012

Ravilious in Riyadh? The 'Out of Britain' Experience

Eric Ravilious, Storm, 1941 (Crown copyright)
I wish I could have gone to the recent launch of 'Out of Britain' at the National Museum in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. In fact I'd be happy just to visit this unusual travelling exhibition of (mostly) 20th century British landscape painting - the kind of loosely-themed, wide-ranging show we ought to be allowed to enjoy more often.

When challenged a while ago about Tate Britain's reluctance to hang work by LS Lowry, curator Chris Stevens explained that the nation's favourite modern painter didn't fit anywhere. You couldn't hang a Lowry as part of a themed exhibition or even in a room devoted to a particular aspect of British art, because Lowry's paintings aren't like anyone else's. Perhaps they will give us a full retrospective instead...

Anyway, the British Council has found no difficulty whatsoever fitting Lowry's 'Industrial City' (1948) into 'Out of Britain', an exhibition that brings together an eclectic group of pictures, along with a few 3-D pieces. The theme of landscape is ideal, first because it avoids any potential awkwardness over representations of the figure, and second because so many of Britain's best 20th century artists painted landscapes.

Rodrigo Moynihan, Barbed Wire - Cornwall, 1943 (Crown copyright)

Between the wars, when British artists were trying to find ways of reconciling their native traditions with the cultural revolution of modernism, there was a marked tendency to avoid the figure and to concentrate instead either on places or on abstract subjects or, perhaps most notably, on various combinations of the two.  Sometimes manmade features lend a contrasting structure to a natural scene, as in Rodrigo Moynihan's wartime painting 'Barbed Wire - Cornwall'. Elsewhere, Paul Nash's 'Landscape of the Megaliths' (1934) takes the ancient and familiar stones of Avebury and refashions them into something new and unsettling.

This is the first time the art lovers of Saudi Arabia will have been treated to the sight of Nash's painting, but by no means its first excursion. 'Landscape of the Megaliths' was first sent abroad to promote British culture in 1939, when it was shown at the British Pavilion of the New York World's Fair. The picture subsequently travelled to Canada and New Zealand, to Japan and India and Africa. A tour taking in Mauritus, Nairobi and Zanzibar must have proved quite a challenge to the curatorial team charged with maintaining proper standards of climate control. Or perhaps they didn't bother.

Paul Nash, Landscape of the Megaliths, 1934 (British Council)
You have to admire the British Council's derring-do in transporting 'Landscape of the Megaliths' around the globe. The painting has been enjoyed in Bulgaria, Hungary and the former Czechoslovakia, as well as Argentina. More recently, however, Nash's idiosyncratic work has resided mostly in the UK, and this trip is its first foray outside Europe in more than twenty years.

I'm not quite sure why 'Out of Britain' is touring Saudi Arabia and the Gulf at this particular moment, although regional newspaper reports note the success of the British Museum's recent 'Haj' exhibition, which featured a number of notable pieces from Saudi Arabia. Students from the region are an important source of income for British language schools and universities, so perhaps the aim is to promote greater awareness of our chilly island nation.

Spencer Gore, Mornington Crescent, 1912
The premise of the show, as described by the British Council, is marvellously simple:

The exhibition features over 50 artworks and examines the ways in which artists have engaged with landscape and addressed timeless and fundamental questions about man's place in the world. Structured around an imagined journey the display will begin in the city and lead out into the countryside to follow the coastline before ultimately returning to an urban landscape. The works in the show illustrate individual artist’s attempts to find their place amongst an ever-changing environment where they are often driven to challenge traditional ways of interpreting and framing the landscape.

Style- and medium-wise, in other words, anything goes. I'm reminded of Kenneth Clark's strategy when he set up the War Artists' scheme in 1939, the idea being to let artists portray the war in their own way. This sent out a message that British artists enjoyed a freedom of expression unknown in Hitler's Germany, which no doubt went down well with the pro-British faction in the then-neutral United States.

David Hepher, No 22, 1972 (Artist copyright)
By coincidence two very fine paintings by Eric Ravilious are included in 'Out of Britain', both created and exhibited in his official capacity as War Artist. Alongside these pictures, visitors to the exhibition will find work by a dizzying range of well-known artists, from Spencer Gore and Matthew Smith to John Tunnard and Peter Lanyon. There are sculptural pieces by David Nash and Richard Long and even, lest we forget that the 20th century is over, Conrad Shawcross's 2008 video installation, 'Pre-Retroscope V', which shows the view from a rowing boat on the River Lea.

George Shaw, Ash Wednesday, 2004-5 (Artist copyright)
This is hardly a multicultural vision of Britain, but it is an intriguing one. How wonderful to see David Hepher's 1972 portrait of suburbia, 'Number 22', alongside George Shaw's 'Ash Wednesday' (2004-5) and Victor Pasmore's post-war 'Suburban Gardens'.

I'm becoming increasingly jealous of Riyadh's art lovers. Do you think the British Council might keep the show together for a while at the end of its tour and exhibit it in the UK? Is that allowed?

'Out of Britain' is at the National Museum, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia until 25 May, then at other venues. See the British Council website for details.

'Eric Ravilious: Going Modern/Being British' is at the RWA, Bristol, UK until 29 April

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