Friday, 26 April 2013

David Inshaw, Roland Collins... & Picasso at the Courtauld

David Inshaw: Bonfire, Tree, Moon & Firework, 2012 
Yesterday I finally got to see David Inshaw's unsettling masterpiece 'The Badminton Game' in person, hanging in its rightful place on a gallery wall. Meticulously painted with a crazy sort of pointillist-meets-pre-Raphaelite attention to detail, it transforms a summery moment into a scene that is both whimsical and ominous. This sense of something unknown lurking behind an otherwise beautiful scene gives David's best work its attention-holding power, and if you're a fan of British landscape painting, post-war art in general or just wonderful pictures, I would hightail down New Bond Street to the Fine Art Society and have a look at the exhibition.

The Fine Art Society, with Badminton Game and mink.
Some of the figures are good, particularly the triptych of a woman draped in a towel, but I think the countryside brings out the best in an artist whose work is in the great tradition of visionary British landscape painters. Like Paul Nash he has a peculiar feeling for trees, and like Eric Ravilious he finds imaginative ways to explore chalk figures - particularly the Cerne Abbas giant. Crows in flight, bonfires, cliffs and water-filled ditches are all presented coolly and without fuss, yet each motif is charged with ambiguous emotions.

15 Paintings by David Inhaw, Fine Art Society (a bit dark, sorry)
If you want to know more, have a look at what Andrew Lambirth has to say, visit David's website, or best of all go along to the show.

Meanwhile, in another part of the city... in fact just round the corner in Cork Street, Browse and Darby have an exhibition of work by Roland Collins, who at the age of 94 is enjoying a well-deserved popularity. After a sold-out show at Mascalls last year he has recently exhibited at the Rye Art Gallery, and now has this small but lovely London exhibition.

Roland Collins, Belgrave Mews
His are paintings that do better with fairly subtle lighting, so that the colours are more natural, and this is the case here. Rather than being dazzled you can focus on his wonderful compositions, the best of which draw the eye through the foreground into some half-hidden scene behind. This show also features watercolours from the early part of his career - in the late 1930s - so you can see how his work exploded into life after the war, when he loosened up and grew more bold.

Roland Collins, A Shore Off the Yacht Club, Whitstable
Meanwhile, in another part of the city... As I had a little time before going to Greenwich to talk about 'Ravilious: Submarine', I trotted along to the Courtauld Gallery - surely one of the most civilized places in London. In fact it's more or less the perfect art museum, being small, fairly quiet and full of interest. Trying to order a cup of tea in the cafe proved to be a bit of a challenge, but then I was able to sit outside and look up at the sky...

If you have a friend who is interested in art history but intimidated by the vastness of most museums, the Courtauld is the perfect place to start. Starting at the bottom and working your way up through the three floors you see examples of work from diverse periods in European art, from the 14th century to the 20th. It's unusual to see such a carefully selected group of pictures covering such a wide time-frame, and fascinating to chart developments and influences.

It struck me that the figures in the current exhibition, Becoming Picasso: Paris 1901, have much in common with the very earliest pictures in the collection, being simplified and expressive. The overwhelming impression, though, was of the Spaniard's sheer energy; accompanying photos show the maniacal light in his eyes, while the paintings themselves are bursting with life. One day, I think, people will look at Picasso's more grotesque work and wonder what all the fuss was about, but in these youthful paintings his brilliance, emotional power and vitality is clear to see.

View of the Courtauld, with melancholy barmaid
Still, the picture I spent longest enjoying was 'A Bar at the Folies-Bergere'. A couple were very earnestly discussing the fact that the girl's reflection isn't quite right - it should be directly behind, perhaps, rather than off to the side. Meanwhile, the barmaid gazed out, as she has done for more than a century, waiting without much hope for her shift to be over.

Monday, 22 April 2013

Mary Fedden and Julian Trevelyan: Greenside Arts Lecture

To Chichester by Choo-choo

RB Kitaj, The Rise of Fascism, 1979-80 (Tate/Artist's Estate)
Last Thursday I went to Chichester on the train, a journey that combined beautiful scenery with various human irritations. Did the conductors (there were two on the same train) have to be quite so aggressive in their ticket-checking? Was the woman sitting behind me trying to get into the Guinness Book of Records for the longest monologue about the minutiae of a person's everyday life? 

The train went via Bath and Bradford-on-Avon to Warminster, Salisbury and Southampton, crossing a region that roughly equates both to old Wessex and to Southern Command during World War II. Just beyond Warminster we passed an army depot with rows of heavily armoured, desert-brown vehicles, the austere hills of Salisbury Plain rising behind. We trundled along the Wylye Valley and through Wilton, where two artistically minded generals, Auchinleck and Alexander, held the post of Commander-in-Chief, Southern Command, one after another.

Their Camouflage Officer was Edward Seago, painter, inventor of a new concealment material made from horsehair and subsequently a life-long friend of both men.  I wonder whether he was involved with the crazy scheme to camouflage chalk railway cuttings by spraying them with black ink, an experiment Eric Ravilious was invited to record but which was abandoned too soon for him to do so.

Paul Delvaux, A Siren in Full Moonlight, 1940 (Southampton City Art Gallery)
The spire of Salisbury Cathedral reminded me of two other artists, Rex and Laurence Whistler, the former killed in action in Normandy, the latter responsible for his beautiful memorial in etched glass which you can see in the cathedral. When we reached Southampton I braved a gale to visit the City Art Gallery in the fabulous 1930s Civic Centre, and found some lovely things on display. A Delvaux mermaid stole the scene in the main room, while a moody painting of a forest by Elizabeth Magill showed that the Romantic tradition in British landscape painting is alive and well.

Chichester Cathedral - peregrine falcons nest in top right turret
I also had a look at Paul Nash's painting 'The Archer', which still seems a bit contrived but has a haunting quality shared by the material on display at my final destination, the Pallant House Gallery in Chichester. While Southampton seems to have been constructed by a giant armed with children's building blocks, central Chichester retains its 18th century or even Medieval scale. When Daniel Defoe visited he noted that the city's population could easily fit into the cathedral, and that may well still be true. 

'What will survive of us is love' - The Arundel Tomb
Unusually for a British church, the cathedral doubles as an art gallery, with a painting by Graham Sutherland standing on the altar in one chapel, while elsewhere a stained glass window by Chagall casts a ruby glow on the stone floor and gigantic tapestries dazzle the choir. There are glorious medieval reliefs carved in stone, Philip Larkin's favourite tomb and even a Roman mosaic; few churches can give one such a strong sense of continuous human history - something the vandals of the Reformation didn't think too much about.

Graham Sutherland, Noli me Tangere, 1960
But the cathedral was an added bonus. My real reason for coming to Chichester was to talk about Paul Nash at Pallant House, a gallery that, like Kettle's Yard in Cambridge, champions 20th century British painting and sculpture. The main collection inhabits a characterful 18th century house with small, well-proportioned rooms that might have been designed to show the kind of art on display. A couple are currently filled with Barbara Hepworth's hospital drawings, but otherwise this is a treasure trove of pictures by neglected artists.

Pallant House

Where else would you see a painting by Frances Hodgkins, the New Zealander who was one of Britain's best-known modern artists in the early 1940s? Where, outside Kettle's Yard, might you find pictures by Ben and Winifred Nicholson side by side, so that the similarity between the two is obvious? Christopher Wood is there too, and Alfred Wallis, and Ivon Hitchens, and the Nash brothers. At the end of my talk someone kindly pointed out to me that there was an Eileen Agar self-portrait in an upstairs room.

The main attraction just now is an RB Kitaj retrospective, which you can read all about here. I think I enjoyed most the more straightforward pastel drawings, which show both wonderful draughtsmanship and a disquieting sense of character and atmosphere.

Paul Nash, by Clare Neilson (Pallant)
But I was there because of Paul Nash and his patron and friend Clare Neilson. Her collection of his books, letters and photographs was recently given to Pallant House, and is currently on display. If you're a Nash fan you have to see this. This isn't a curator or critic's interpretation of Nash's career but an intimate portrait of the artist; alongside wood engravings, illustrations and books - 'Places', 'Room and Book' and others - are hand-written letters and photos, stuck to pages from faded albums, showing him playfully posing with standing stones. 

This is the artist I was looking for when I researched 'Paul Nash in Pictures: Landscape and Dream', and it was a treat to see him brought to life in this beautifully presented exhibition.

FFI: Pallant House Gallery

Monday, 15 April 2013

Can Modern Art Still Be Fun?

Yves Klein in flight
Once, a long time ago, I bought an inter-rail ticket and roamed around Europe, indulging my fascination for Modern Art. I went to the Modern Art Museum in Paris and the Ludwig Museum in Koln, the Louisiana Museum near Copenhagen and the Moderna Museet in Stockholm. Back then the best London had to offer was the Hayward Gallery, so it was exciting to see 'The Shock of the New' brought to life wherever I went. Sights I remember include a fabulously tall, skinny sculpture by Giacometti (genius!), the head of which you could view from a special balcony, sponges painted blue by Yves Klein and Rauschenberg's goat.

After a while, though, I became jaded. Perhaps I was overdoing it, but the main problem was that every museum seemed to feature the same artists. As I walked around ticking off the Names I started to suspect that the Modern Art museums of the world were like a chain of stores, offering artworks selected from a canon established by influential critics. Nothing wrong with that, I suppose, unless you visit too many museums one after another. You wouldn't visit seven Tescos in search of new experiences, would you?

What made me feel rather gloomier was my gradual loss of interest in artists I had admired for their crazy behaviour, brilliance and humour. One of my treasured possessions at the time was a poster showing Yves Klein apparently leaping out of a window, yet I felt little of that madcap spirit on my travels; the real artistry lay in the making of the work, perhaps, rather than the work itself - what we were left to enjoy were the mementos of other people's adventures.

With this thought in mind I went with some trepidation to the Barbican on Friday to see the show about Duchamp, Cage, Cunningham, Johns & Rauschenberg. That I went at all was mostly because of a video clip posted by critic Fisun Guner of John Cage performing one of his crazy pieces of music on a game show. That little clip brought back the excitement of discovering Modern Art as a provincial teenager. Back in the 1980s it seemed that everything wonderful happened elsewhere, in Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin or New York, and art was a kind of distillation of all that glamour and invention. The artists themselves were heroic in their determination to challenge the tedium of everyday life with giant hamburgers, cartoon figures, images of celebrity and disaster. Modern Art was cool and fun.

The day before the Barbican visit I popped into Tate Modern, and the only thing about the place that was cool or fun was the cafe at the top. Admittedly I didn't go to the Lichenstein show, but I did visit a dozen or more rooms, each one more depressing than the last; there were a couple of brilliant pieces by Max Ernst and a lovely Delvaux painting, otherwise the best thing on show was a full-length portrait by Meredith Frampton. Perhaps this was because you could enjoy the picture without knowing anything about art history, whereas so much of the other stuff meant nothing outside its context.

But would the Barbican show offer more? I'd previously seen Duchamp's 'The Bride Laid Bare...' once or twice and found it frustratingly obscure. Now here it was again, still impossible to fathom despite the helpful chart describing its component parts. Am I missing something, or is the joke on us? I love R Mutt's 'Fountain' because its effect is immediate and funny (though slightly less so when presented in a box of centimetre-thick perspex), but 'The Bride Laid Bare' is one for the PhDs only.

Robert Rauschenberg, Express, 1963 (DACS/Artist's Estate)

The same is true, I would have thought, for about half of the show. A reasonably intelligent visitor, I was defeated by the dry displays in the rooms devoted to music, maths and chance. The pianos playing themselves are a lot of fun, though, and so are many of the artworks: Duchamp's trompe l'oeil door, the lovely Johns piece with the painting-by-numbers target, paints and brush and the same artist's 'Field Painting' were particular treats. The latter features an illuminated letter and a light switch, and I'm sure many visitors have the urge to flick the switch and see what happens.

It says something about the gulf between the making of these works and our viewing of them that to do so would get you arrested.

I particularly wanted to rescue Rauschenberg's 'Music Box' from its perspex prison and give it a shake. A crude wooden box with rusty nails penetrating from the outside and pebbles inside, it is an object crying out  to be picked up and played with. With all three of the visual artists you get the feeling that they had great fun making their work, and somehow - almost in spite of the exhibition's rationale - this energy came through.

With the pianos clunking and plinking away in the background and the spirit of these wonderfully inventive artists filling the gallery, I felt a definite quiver of excitement. There's still a lot of fun to be had exploring the avant-garde of the past, when it's presented with the kind of love and sensitivity shown by the Barbican show's curator, Phillipe Parreno. I bet the dancing is great too.

FFI: Barbican Art Gallery