Friday, 26 October 2012

Ravilious Lifeboat Print: Help for Heroes

Eric Ravilious, Lifeboat, 1938 (DACS/artist's estate)
The Towner Gallery has recently acquired 'Lifeboat', a 1938 watercolour by Eric Ravilious, on long-term loan. This gorgeous painting, which featured in 'Eric Ravilious: Going Modern, Being British' at RWA Bristol earlier this year, is unusually colourful for an artist who tended to prefer more muted tones.

The Mainstone Press, publisher of the 'Ravilious in Pictures' series, has just published a limited edition giclee print of 'Lifeboat', which for a short time is available exclusively from Towner. A percentage from all sales of the print will go to Help for Heroes, the charity chosen by the painting's owner. This seems fitting, given that Ravilious died on active service as a war artist.

'Lifeboat' is also reproduced in 'Ravilious in Pictures: A Travelling Artist', which I will be discussing next month, along with the other books in the series, at several illustrated talks (see panel on right). The V&A Study Day has sold out, but you can still buy tickets for the other events - if there's something you'd like to know about Ravilious or his work, come along and ask!

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

The Peculiar Greatness of Christopher Wood

Christopher Wood, Breton Woman at Prayer, 1930 (Southampton City AG)
A new travelling exhibition at the Norwich Castle Museum looks anew at the life and work of Christopher Wood (1901-1930) by hanging his pictures alongside those of his friend Cedric Morris (1889-1982). Their lives were a study in contrast. Wood was charismatic, flawed, driven and something of a genius; an opium addict, he died at the age of 29 when he fell under a train at Salisbury station. It is altogether in keeping with the contradictory nature of his life and career that no-one can be sure whether he jumped or fell. Morris, on the other hand, lived to a ripe old age and was a highly respected teacher. Lucien Freud painted his portrait. He was a good painter, but lacked the mysterious something that separates the great from the good.

Christopher Wood, Church at Treboul, 1930 (Tate)
This greatness is something you feel (and it's subjective, of course). Sometimes when you read a story, watch a film or look at a picture you sense that there is something going on beneath or beyond the surface, and you keep coming back to experience that feeling again or in an effort to understand it better. Novels come larded with notes to help you understand imagery, hidden themes, structural tricks, etc; these may help you understand the techniques in use, without explaining why this particular story has such emotional power over you.

Cedric Morris, Breton Landscape, 1927 (Kirklees Museums and Galleries)
I've read some books ('The Great Gatsby', 'The English Patient', 'Le Grand Meaulnes') over and over, with new excitement each time. And the same goes for pictures. I could stand all day looking at Gainsborough's portrait of his daughters chasing a butterfly (a painting the artist apparently didn't rate very highly). Paul Nash's 'Event on the Downs' is always somewhere in the back of my mind. One or two of Peter Doig's pictures keep me awake at night...

When Christopher Wood died he was about two years into his career as a painter of vision. Two years! Between 1928 and 1930 he painted like a man possessed, producing the famous pictures of Cornish fishing boats and Breton churches, and those other strange coastal paintings of sleeping sailors and sunbathers and drying fishing nets; there were other, more disturbing pictures too, such as 'The Yellow Man', which I think he painted in Paris.

Christopher Wood, The Yellow Man

Unfortunately his life story has become tangled up with that of Ben Nicholson and Alfred Wallis, so that we tend to see him through the filter of that 1928 meeting in St Ives and dwell on questions of influence that detract from the real story. He may have borrowed Wallis's dark dark seas (the naive style he had already), but what he found in the Cornish and Breton fishing villages was something deeper. Sometimes he made his thoughts and feelings visible - in the skeletal timbers of a half-built boat, for instance - but on other occasions they are more elusive. In one picture a woman is mending a fishing net; another shows a woman praying in a simple church. The style is a bit heavy-handed, even clumsy (Morris was more technically skilled), yet there is in these pictures sadness and beauty, serenity and strangeness.

Christopher Wood, Pony and Trap, 1930
Some artists who die young seem already to have given us everything, artistically speaking, that they have. Christopher Wood, by contrast, was just getting started.

'Cedric Morris and Christopher Wood: a Forgotten Friendship' is at the Norwich Castle Museum until New Year's Eve, before touring to the Mascalls Gallery and the Falmouth Art Gallery. It is a Mascalls Gallery touring show, curated by Nathaniel Hepburn.

Monday, 15 October 2012

Winifred Nicholson: Music of Colour

Winifred Nicholson, Daffodils & Bluebells in a
Norman Window, 1950s (Kettle's Yard)
Walking around Kettle's Yard, the former Cambridge home of art collector HS (Jim) Ede, a few years ago I was struck by an expansive painting of a beach and the sea beyond. The picture was wide and soft and strangely luminous and, since there are no labels at Kettle's Yard (the house, I mean, not the gallery), rather mysterious. I found myself in the awkward and unusual position of having no-one to tell me whether or not I should take this picture seriously.

All I could do was look. The brushwork was loose and flowing, as if the artist had liked the scene very much and enjoyed painting it. In turn I found myself enjoying the muted colours and the lively brushwork. It seemed an original kind of vision. Then someone came by and said something about the artist being very good but not well known. I knew the name, Winifred Nicholson, through association with her husband Ben, but I didn't know her as an artist in her own right.

Winifred Nicholson, Sound of Rhum from Isle of Eigg, 1950s
This is hardly surprising, given the lack of opportunity to see her work. While there are stacks of weighty tomes devoted to Ben Nicholson (who left her for Barbara Hepworth in the 1930s), finding a book on Winifred was, until recently, quite a task. Now there is a colourful, spacious monograph by Christopher Andreae, although it's fairly pricey if you're not a fan already. There's also an excellent website, which has some gorgeous reproductions of her work. And, until December, you can see a small selection of her pictures on display at Kettle's Yard Gallery, complete with labels.

Current exhibition at Kettle's Yard Gallery
Winifred Nicholson (1893-1981) enjoyed a long, varied and productive career. During the 1920s, a decade traditionally overlooked by historians of British art, she and Ben worked side by side, developing their own response to the modernist revolution and finding inspiration particularly in the landscape around their home at Banks Head in Cumberland. This became, in the words of Christopher Wood, 'a Painter's Place', where visitors included Paul and Margaret Nash, Ivon Hitchens and Wood himself.

Winifred Nicholson, Seascape (Sea and Sand), 1926 (Kettle's Yard)
He and Winifred became close friends, yet she tends to be sidelined when the story of Wood, Ben Nicholson and Alfred Wallis is told. The famous 1928 meeting in St Ives comes across as a rather masculine affair, but Winifred was staying there too (as was Wood's delightfully named lover, Frosca Munster). It is arguable that poor doomed Kit Wood was influenced as much by her as by Wallis, and when you look at Ben and Winifred's work from the late 1920s side by side you can see plenty of similarities.

Winifred Nicholson, From Bedroom Window, 1930
'She has probably no equal among modern British painters,' wrote a critic of her 1929 exhibition, 'as a colourist of the most exquisite refinement.'

Two years later she responded to her husband's departure by removing to Paris with their children, there continuing both to paint and to write about her ideas, before returning to Britain shortly before the war. For the rest of her life she would divide her time between her family and her painting, exhibiting regularly in London and enjoying periods of intense creativity and experimentation. Some of the work she painted later in life, especially in Scotland and around Banks Head, is as fresh and luminous as the pictures from the 1920s. Throughout, she maintained a warm, lively correspondence with her former husband and retained an endless fascination for the music of colour.

Winifred Nicholson, Flower Table, Pots, 1929
Thanks to Winifred Nicholson's estate for allowing me to show these pictures. Copyright of course remains with them. Do have a look at their website.


Tuesday, 9 October 2012

The City in Miniature: Alan Wolfson's New York

One of the joys of the internet these days is the site or blog that basically rebroadcasts images from elsewhere on the web. I'm sure there's a word for it, but I don't know what it is. Anyway there's one listed in my Other Voices which is called The Track North and I love it. Another variant is Things Magazine, which rounds up vast amounts of material, and it was there I spotted these extraordinary sculptures.

Alan Wolfson, Hopp's Luncheonette (2008)
Alan Wolfson is a New York artist who has been making miniature versions of real and imaginary buildings and businesses since the 1970s, capturing the Times Square area during its seedy heyday/nadir (delete according to taste). His sculptures, which are usually around a couple of feet square and a foot high, are both fantastically detailed and wonderfully atmospheric.

Alan Wolfson, Hopp's (interior)
He doesn't just show the exteriors of hotels, stores, diners and strip joints, he also shows the interiors, some of which are so vivid you can smell them...

Alan Wolfson, St George Hotel, interior (1994)
In one piece he manages to squeeze in both street and subway levels, giving an unusual view of the relationship between different parts of the city...

Alan Wolfson, Canal Street subway (2010)
His latest piece - after fifty years of work - is a tribute to the famous New York institution Katz's Delicatessen. In his notes, the artist writes, 'Katz’s Delicatessen is one of those legendary New York locations. It’s been in business on the lower east side of Manhattan since 1888, and is New York’s oldest deli. Telling someone to “meet me at Katz’s..,” is almost the same as telling them to meet you under the clock in Grand Central - everyone knows where it is.'

Alan Wolfson, Katz's Delicatessen (2012)
He adds: 'Part of the challenge in building this piece was to come up with a narrative that was believable. Since I don’t put miniature people in my pieces how could I justify that a restaurant that is always crowded had no customers lining up for their world famous pastrami sandwiches? I decided to create a scene that takes place right after closing time, during the cleanup. Dirty plates are waiting to be removed, chairs are stacked on the tables and mops and buckets are at the ready.

'Since most of my work is staged in the 1970s and 80s I was able to create an homage, on the exterior wall, to the rock groups and punk rockers that were so prevalent on the Lower East Side during that time.'

Alan Wolfson, Katz's interior (2012)
Alan Wolfson is one of the artists featured in the wonderful-sounding show 'Otherworldly, Des Mondes Irreels' at MUba, a museum near Lille, France. If you love New York, check out his website.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Lisbon Story

Thinking about details and ways of seeing, I remembered a trip to Lisbon a few years ago and delved into my computer's memory for these pictures...

The old part of the city has been protected from the kind of rapid 'improvement' seen in other European cities by convoluted property laws. No, I can't remember the details. Some buildings are undoubtedly in need of repair, but others have amazing tiles and other decorative touches...

Blue sky authentic, no photoshopping required!

One of my favourite films is 'Lisbon Story' by Wim Wenders, which is all about a sound engineer collecting sounds around Lisbon. This makes me think of the featured band, Madredeus...

The sound man picks up all manner of delightful sonic details. Here's a nice visual...

Could be south Bristol (we even have palm trees) - felt right at home...

Except we don't have tiles like these...

Or buildings like this - wow!

Finally... I think Ravilious might have enjoyed this one, and maybe put it in his Lisbon version of 'High Street'. The place may well be gone by now...

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Great Works & Details: Tom Lubbock & Kenneth Clark

Just as a great river does not flow from a single source, but is made up of innumerable tributaries great and small, so the total impression of a work of art is built up of a hundred different sensations, analogies, memories, thoughts - some obvious, many recondite, a few analysable, most beyond analysis.

Kenneth Clark wrote this sentence in the introduction to one of my favourite art books, 'One Hundred Details from the National Gallery', which was published in 1938; given that the entire collection was removed from the gallery a year later for safe-keeping, there must have been young art lovers who grew up in its absence, for whom this book was like the catalogue to a fabulous lost treasure trove. What I love particularly about the book is its winning combination of erudition and simplicity. Clark was of course fantastically knowledgeable and wrote countless books, but in this case he was limited by the form of the book to making succinct comments about specific pictures.

His 'details' - pictures within pictures - have a life of their own, and Clark merrily compares fragments of landscape or minor characters that share some basic similarity but are perhaps centuries and hundreds of miles apart. A comparison of hands painted by Holbein and Rubens allows him to make pithy remarks about the differences between Renaissance and Baroque painting, while we are left to observe for ourselves the contrasting handling by Rubens and Uccello of musicians in a martial crowd.

For anyone who finds it a struggle to wade through art history books, 'One Hundred Details' is a delight of brevity, wisdom and dry humour. It's as if the great man has taken his jacket off, loosened his tie and is wandering the gallery with a glass of brandy, chatting about his favourite pictures. I can't think of a better way to talk about art, which makes it all the more tragic that another strolling expositor, Tom Lubbock, died so young.

Like this off-duty Kenneth Clark, Lubbock approached paintings (and exhibitions) with intelligence and wit. I remember being slightly appalled by his review of 'Familiar Visions', the 2010 Towner Gallery exhibition that placed the work of Eric Ravilious alongside photographs by his son James Ravilious, because he dismissed the photographer pretty much in one word - 'dull'. But that was Lubbock all over. He wrote it as he saw it, and if an exhibition failed to inspire him, he said so.

Of course in his long-running 'Great Works' column he didn't have that problem, since (I assume) he was allowed to choose pictures that did inspire him, and he approached them very much in the spirit of the off-duty KC. You may already own a copy of the 'book of the column', but if you don't I would recommend it very highly; chuck away the books about how to look at pictures and revel in fifty paintings explored in fifty different ways. The short essays won't get you through an art history exam, but they will do what so little art writing does - make you look at familiar paintings with new eyes.

Like Clark, Lubbock is concerned first and foremost with the act of looking. Forget the biography, forget the period or the movement, ignore the label. Just look. And, as you look, allow your mind to open and welcome a 'hundred different sensations, analogies, memories, thoughts'. Rather than trying to reduce the picture by fitting it into the pre-arranged scheme of art history, let it expand. Rather than trying to identify or even read a picture, look at it in pictorial terms - as a combination of shapes, lines or areas of light and darkness.

Henry Fuseli, Silence (1799-1801)
The aim isn't to find answers but to appreciate the work more fully. In the essay accompanying Henry Fuseli's painting 'Silence', Lubbock focuses on the form of the figure portrayed. In fact he starts off like this:

The psychology of shapes is good business. Find out your shape-personality type and you'll know yourself, both well and profitably. The square? Your colleagues will come to you for help. The circle? People will bring you their personal problems.

From there he winds his way towards Fuseli and this painting and, having caught our attention, proceeds to analyse the figure's shape, trying and rejecting different interpretations of its meaning. In a few short paragraphs we look and look again, seeing that the figure is 'sunk into itself' but that its form is not so much closed fist as 'softly closed hand'. By the end we're fully involved in the story of this solitary figure, but what does it mean? Will all be revealed?

So Silence speaks in an abstract emotional language. Its feelings go inwards and downwards. Its feelings are soft and not hard. Beyond that, it doesn't say anything specific. It's too basic. It's an archetypal figure, personifying a very fundamental state of the human mind. True, if this figure belongs to one of the shape-personality types, mentioned above, it surely has to be "circle". But you probably wouldn't go to it with your personal problems.

Fernand Leger, Holly Leaf on a Red Background, 1928 (private collection)
I've always felt that it's easier to discuss, in layperson's terms, pictures that represent something, but Lubbock demonstrates an ability to talk engagingly about paintings that offer no obvious way in, about pictures consisting only of a few circles on a uniform background, or of a simple hut against layered colours. In December 2009 he took on Fernand Leger's 'Holly Leaf on Red Background', beginning with the evergreen's seasonal symbolism and then subjecting Leger's version to his gleeful scrutiny:

The leaf has only tone and form. Our attention is all on its light and shade and shaping. 

And the leaf's shaping is especially stressed because it is so peculiar – extremely complex and perhaps impossible. This holly leaf is made out of curves and spikes and waves just like a normal holly leaf. But the way these forms are assembled is another matter.

For example, try to follow its formations, its bumps and hollows, as indicated by the shadings and highlights, across its surface. It's like an area of corrugated iron, dented and folded. Now compare this landscape with the landscape implied by the outside edge on the left side. Can the two be co-ordinated?

The picture, he concludes, strips the holly leaf of its associations to marvel at its sheer physical presence. Tom Lubbock did something similar himself with pictures. What a shame he had to stop.

'Great Works' continues in The Independent.