Thursday, 30 August 2012

Parade's End: TV with an Eye for Painting

Fans of BBC costume drama may be slightly perplexed by Parade's End, which depicts the world of the upper classes in the early 20th century as cold and carelessly brutal. The first episode also had decidedly odd moments which may well have put off some viewers, such as the scene involving a vicar with Tourette's, but I was captivated throughout by the cinematography, which seems to reflect the director's interest in British landscape painting of the (approximate) period.

Many of the rural scenes, and particularly the panoramic landscape shots, might have been inspired by watercolours painted by Ravilious in the 1930s. One lingering image shows fields sloping downhill, striped by plough or roller, like the fields in 'Mount Caburn'. Another features a pale but incandescent sun rising over misty hills, and another a train steaming across a landscape dominated by the white horse of Westbury.

This is followed by a shot of the interior of the train, in which the white horse appears framed by the window. Perhaps this is coincidence - after all, anyone who has travelled from London to the south-west via  Castle Cary will have seen the same image - but I can't imagine there's a Rav fan who didn't immediately think of 'Train Landscape'.

Eric Ravilious, Mount Caburn (DACS/Artist's estate)
Damn, now I'll have to read the book to see whether Ravilious was inspired to paint his picture by a passage in it! And I never managed to finish 'The Good Soldier', which is much shorter than the four-books-in-one that is 'Parade's End'. I'm sorry, but I found Ford Madox Ford painfully dull.

Anyway, painting was in my mind as I started watching the show for a reason. By chance I had come across an article on the website of Broadcast magazine, in which director Susanna White talked about how she put together the battlefield scenes which I suspect will dominate the remaining episodes. Anyone who tries to dramatize the Western Front is going to be aware of all the films and TV series that have gone before, and at the moment the success of 'War Horse' must weigh particularly heavy.

Ms White says as much in the Broadcast piece, 'Tom [Stoppard, screenwriter] and I had visited the set of Steven Spielberg’s War Horse, trenches stretching as far as the eye could see, wide enough to gallop a horse down. How could we compete? We took the opposite approach and drew on documentary photographs to come up with narrow channels through mud walls, only just wide enough for two men to squeeze past each other.'

Paul Nash, Wire, 1918 (IWM)
I haven't seen the results yet, but the approach is absolutely right. The British trench system was famously inadequate compared to the concrete fortifications the Germans built, and in the front lines it was often little more than a shallow trough in which men cowered. The British top brass did not believe in fortification: they wanted the army to be mobile, constantly on the offensive, so trench-building was as minimal as possible. Read Edmund Blunden's harrowing but beautiful book 'Undertones of War' for more on this...

To create this non-'War Horse' vision of the Western Front, meanwhile, the director turned to another of my favourite artists:

Paul Nash, Landscape Hill 60, 1918 (IWM)

'We pared it right back – few duckboards, few sandbags, opting instead for organic curves of pure mud with bare shattered trees, like the spare landscapes in paintings by Paul Nash. One shot of the battlefield at night is a direct quote from a Nash painting, brought to life with moving flares and explosions.'

Is it unusual for a film-maker to seek inspiration in paintings? I don't know. But Nash was there, in the front lines, and he recorded what he saw in an extraordinary series of sketches and paintings. You can see a lot of them on the website of the Imperial War Museum, and they're as fresh and chilling as they were when he exhibited them in 1917/18. He made his first sketches as an infantry officer training with his men in preparation for the Battle of Passchendaele, and he was only able to exhibit them because he fell into a trench one night, broke a rib and was invalided home.

A great deal of cajoling then brought him a commission as a war artist, and he was able to return in the autumn to record the latter stages of the battle. These pictures, which he showed in the spring of 1918, were widely acknowledged as the most authentic vision of the life on the Western Front.

Paul Nash, Sunset: Ruin of the Hospice, Wytschaete, 1917 (IWM)
‘This is a beautiful and wonderful world, he seems to say,’ wrote a critic in the Times, ‘and see what man has made of it. See also how even man’s insanity cannot rob the tortured and battered earth of its beauty. In many of his drawings he has been struck by the strange, unaccountable beauty of the meaningless shapes of things so tortured and battered. They make an abstract music of their own, like the abstract music of form that the cubist tries to make for himself. Mr Nash has not had to make it; it was there for him to see; utter chaos, as of a world dead for a million years, frozen and without atmosphere, and yet beautiful to frightened human eyes…’

Herbert Read, a serving soldier who would become one of the most influential critics of his time, felt that Nash ‘could convey, as no other artist, the phantasmagoric atmosphere of No Man’s Land.’

I'm looking forward to seeing what Susanna White conjures from Nash's vision. Christopher Tietjens seems like the kind of honourable, sensitive man for whom the trenches will prove hellish but easier to cope with than Society.


Monday, 27 August 2012

Remembering Eric Ravilious (1903-42)

Eric Ravilious, Hurricanes in Flight, 1942 (DACS/Artist's Estate)
On 2nd September 1942 Eric Ravilious disappeared, along with four British airmen, when their Hudson aircraft failed to return from an air-sea rescue mission off the coast of Iceland. He had only just arrived at RAF Kaldadarnes, whence he had been posted at his own request and with the blessing of Kenneth Clark, head of the War Artists' Advisory Committee, who admired the work he had done two years earlier off the Norwegian coast. One can only imagine that he volunteered to join the air-sea rescue flight in the hope of capturing the moment of rescue.

This Sunday, to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the artist's disappearance, Alan Powers and I will each be giving an illustrated talk at the Birley Centre in Eastbourne, for the Friends of the Towner Art Gallery. I will be exploring the life and work of Ravilious the watercolourist, looking in depth at a number of his Sussex pictures and endeavouring to give a flavour of the artist and his times. There's a tendency these days to see him as rather an austere character - a haunter of solitary Downland ways - and I hope to show him as someone much more human, brilliant but down to earth.

Ravilious in uniform
Alan will then explore his work as a designer and, in particular, the reception of this work by his peers. What kind of reputation did Ravilious enjoy during his lifetime? How was his work perceived in the years following his disappearance? I'm greatly looking forward to hearing what Alan has to say on this subject, since I've always found it rather perplexing that an artist of such obvious talent could disappear so thoroughly from view for several decades.

I appreciate that fashions change, but I find it hard to believe that the people who enjoyed David Inshaw's work so much in the 1970s wouldn't have flocked to a Ravilious show. How could the painter of 'Train Landscape' and 'Chalk Paths', not to mention the designer of the Alphabet series, fall so far out of favour? All I can think of is that, with no monograph to encourage interest and only the occasional exhibition, people just didn't know about him. That they do now is thanks primarily to Anne Ullmann, Eric's daughter, who edited two major books on his work for the Fleece Press.

Anne was only a toddler when her father disappeared, but though she may have been too young to remember him properly, I wonder whether some recollection of his presence stayed with her. Few people remain alive who remember Eric Ravilious, however there have been in recent years several rather miraculous instances of lost artworks and artifacts returning from oblivion. Last year it was his dummy for a Puffin Picture Book on White Horses, and a few years before that a pair of early watercolours that turned up among the effects of a collector in Surrey.

On Tuesday 4th September a new find is up for auction at Sworders' auction house in Stanton Mountfitchet: five of the auto-lithographs made by Ravilious in 1940/41 and known nowadays as the Submarine Series. These were apparently found shoved down the side of a bed in north London, though whose bed it was and how they got there I have no idea. Sworders had great success with the White Horse Dummy, which was bought by the Museum of Wiltshire Life in Devizes, and they're hoping the new find will prove equally popular.

Eric Ravilious, Introductory Drawing (aka Submarine Dream), auto-lithograph, 1941
It is important to stress that these are not lithographs made by a printer from the artist's design but auto-lithographs. Ravilious himself prepared the plates for printing and then worked closely with the lithography team at WS Cowell's printing works in Ipswich. Unlike traditional prints, like etchings, which are sold in a numbered edition of very similar prints, these submarine lithographs are unnumbered and (mostly) unsigned, but the artist's presence can be felt strongly in the way they vary across the edition - in colour, tone and minor details. About fifty sets of ten were printed, one of which can be seen at the Fry Art Gallery.

Whether these five prints end up in a public institution or in a private collection, it's wonderful that they have reappeared after so long, to be enjoyed as they should be. And don't despair if you're not planning to bid: the full Submarine Series plus a number of the artist's preparatory drawings will be published this autumn by the Mainstone Press in a beautiful new book, 'Ravilious: Submarine'.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Art on the Beach: Alex Katz at Tate St Ives

Alex Katz, Black Hat, 2010
I have a confession to make about Tate St Ives, the gallery that ought to be dedicated to the work of the wonderful Cornish art colony, but isn't. Anyone who has been there will know that the delightful building (and its relatively seagull-free cafe balcony) overlooks Porthmeor Beach, and there have been times in the past when I've abandoned the family to the delights of fine art and hired a surfboard for a couple of hours. Not that I would make any claim to being a surfer, but I am just about capable of standing upright on a board long enough to have my picture taken. Last time I avoided an installation involving thousands of balloons and bobbed about in the sea instead. This time, though, the sea was flat, and for once the art promised to be more fun.

It was. I don't know what, if anything, the American painter Alex Katz has to do with St Ives, but over a long career he has made a fascinatingly diverse range of pictures, and a decent selection of those are on show in the main gallery until late September. Among some odd choices - a sketchy painting of a seagull, for one - were some lovely things. For once, I'm quite glad that I walked round the exhibition knowing almost nothing about the artist, as I think he's less interesting once you start trying to put him in context with Warhol and the American Pop Art generation. As it was, I wandered from room to room with kids in tow, not worrying too much about what any of the simply-constructed beach scenes and so on meant.

A billboard-sized painting of women in glamorous swimsuits was striking, but I preferred the picture opposite, '4.30pm', with its deep blue sea and white boats that looked as though they'd been stencilled on last but were, apparently, put on the canvas first. The simple style suited the subject, and didn't seem just to be making a point about Advertising or some such. In the last room, showing the artist's most recent work, it was great to come across one of the strongest pictures in the exhibition, a portrait of a woman wearing a splendid black hat.

William Nicholson, Top: The Hill Above Harlech, 1919 (Tate) Bottom: Nude, 1921 (Tate)

But there was more... Downstairs (in the space so frighteningly filled on a previous occasion with balloons) were pictures from the Tate collection selected by Katz himself. They showed an artist of varied tastes, from Le Douanier Rousseau and Chaim Soutine to the cool and meticulous William Nicholson. The highlight of the day for me was the clever juxtaposition of a beautifully lit Welsh landscape with the most chilled-out of nudes. Looking from one to the other they began to blur, so that the woman's limbs became a kind of landscape. Must find out more about this artist, who was every bit as good as his son Ben, and must have influenced Rav and co with his cool studies.

I was about to leave at this point when I noticed an open doorway with a Tate minion standing in a proprietorial sort of way outside. She let me pass without comment and I found myself in a room of delights, a mini-exhibition devoted to four artists who did have a connection with St Ives. Very much so, in fact. The premise of '1928 - A Cornish Encounter' was the meeting in that year between the up-and-coming young artists Ben Nicholson and Christopher Wood, who were staying in Cornwall along with Ben's wife Winifred, and the elderly painter Alfred Wallis. There wasn't much about the meeting itself, but display cases full of letters gave one the opportunity to study everyone's handwriting.

Christopher Wood, Boat in Harbour, Brittany, 1929 (Tate)
More importantly there were paintings on the wall whose creators had a connection to the place in which they were being shown, including a lovely piece by Ben Nicholson of ships viewed through a stylised but still recognisable window, and one of Wood's sumptuous harbour pictures, with a fishing boat that looked good enough to eat. Nice to see Winifred N at least getting a look-in, but I wonder when one of our richer art institutions will give her a proper retrospective.

Winifred Nicholson, Sandpipers, Alnmouth, 1933 (Tate)
Congratulations and thank you to the curator who managed to get '1928 - A Cornish Encounter' on the wall. Next year, can we have the full-sized version in the main gallery, please?