Saturday, 26 March 2016

Eric Ravilious and a Boat Race Landmark

Eric Ravilious, River Thames at Hammersmith, 1933 (Towner)

Although he was born in London and lived there on and off through his twenties, Ravilious painted few watercolours of the capital. Fans of the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race may recognise the scene, however, as the island lies about halfway along the course, just around the Surrey Bend from Hammersmith Bridge. We are looking from Chiswick Mall over the western end of Chiswick Eyot towards the low-lying land of Barnes.

By 1933, Ravilious and Tirzah were dividing their time between Great Bardfield in Essex, where they shared a house with Edward and Charlotte Bawden, and a flat on Weltje Road, Hammersmith, which overlooked the river a short way downstream of this vantage point. Here the couple held Boat Race parties every spring, particularly enjoying the moment of drama when the thin, pointed prows of the boats first appeared out from under Hammersmith Bridge, with the spreading swarm of little steamers and motor-boats following behind. In 1938 Ravilious designed for Wedgwood a magnificent Boat Race bowl.

Further upstream, Tirzah later recalled, ‘was a barge made into a boat house... and even further along was our landlady Mrs Austin and then Mr Nigel Playfair’s house with its large semi-circle of window... opposite these houses was a little island called the ‘Ey’ or Ait’ which you could visit at low tide’

It was perhaps from the landlady’s window that Ravilious painted a scene that is full of interest. In the foreground a workman gazes upriver, ignoring for the moment the piles of bricks and sand that he is about to build into the slipway one can see today. Beyond him lies the island, one of those low, cigar-shaped accumulations of mud that belong uniquely to the tidal Thames. From it protrude curious tufts of vegetation. They could be rushes, except that the plants on the far left, which are uncut, seem more substantial. Something is certainly being cultivated here, but what?

The Eyot floods at high tide with brackish water, making it useless for most crops but ideal for growing willows such as the shrubby, multi-stemmed osier (Salix viminalis). This fast-growing plant was once vital to fruit growers and market gardeners, who relied on its stems, known as withies, for basket-making. In earlier centuries Chiswick was renowned for its market gardens and, from around 1800, the Eyot was used to cultivate osiers, a practice that continued until the last grower went out of business two years after this painting was made.

Osiers still grow on the island, now a nature reserve. Nearby another longstanding local industry remains very much in business – an industry in which the artist had a considerable interest. Fuller’s Griffin Brewery occupies the same extensive site just behind the artist’s vantage point on Chiswick Mall, as it did in 1933 and has indeed since 1845. Perhaps, as he worked, Ravilious smelled the fragrant hops and looked forward to a pint of London Pride.

This is an excerpt from 'Ravilious in Pictures: A Travelling Artist', published by The Mainstone Press.

Monday, 21 March 2016

Hooray for Giorgione the Unknowable

Giorgione, The Tempest, c1506-8
Historians explain the past in terms of cause and effect, art historians in terms of innovation and influence. Work your way through one of the enormous books on the subject (billed as the definitive guide or THE story) and you come out the other end with the feeling that human culture is a sort of long distance railway journey from a remote and primitive region to the bustling metropolis. One thing follows logically on from the next: Giotto... Titian... Rembrandt... Manet... Warhol... It makes sense. It's reassuring, in the same way that knowing the English kings is reassuring.

But of course there are other ways of looking at this. When Peggy Angus visited Soviet Russia in the early 1930s she was struck by the way artworks were arranged at the Hermitage, not by movement but by patron. The artistic identity of different ages was moulded not by the artists but by the people and organisations who paid them - the Christian church in 15th century Italy, or the wealthy burghers of Vermeer's Holland, or the rich men who paid Thomas Gainsborough to paint their women.

This is a bit reductive, but it does make you think. Why, I sometimes wonder, is there such an obsession with progress in art? At any one time the vast majority of artists (and their patrons) are conservative. Techniques evolve, but the wealthy still like to have their portraits painted and London galleries are filled with attractive pictures of landscapes and picturesque places. Meanwhile, the unique expression embodied in a really good painting is likely to be missed, as we pin it to our art history map.

Titian, Pastoral Concert, c1509
Rather than exemplifying the fashion of their age, exceptional artists tend to transcend it. Frank Auerbach made the point in an interview last year that Giotto and Cezanne have more in common than Cezanne and Pissarro, because the former both painted pictures that 'work'. In the same way it makes more sense to think of Manet in relation to Goya than as an Impressionist. Better still, look at Manet next to Giorgione.

In strict art historical terms the relationship between these two wonderful artists is debatable. When
he first decided to paint a naked woman, Manet did go off to consult Giorgione, but the painting he studied - 'Pastoral Concert' - has since been attributed to Titian. So he may have tried to be influenced by Giorgione but wasn't, except sort of second-hand, via Titian. 

But I think there's a more important connection between these two painters, though divided by the centuries: they both painted pictures that resist being pinned down. In Manet's case I'm talking particularly about 'A Bar at the Folies-Bergere', which I never tire of visiting at the Courtauld Gallery, and in Giorgione's 'The Tempest', aka 'The Soldier and the Gipsy', which I was hoping would be featured in the current RA show, but isn't.

Manet, Dejeuner Sur L'Herbe, c1862
I don't know what either artist intended, but both works play with our ideas of art history. In Manet's case, the painting seems at first sight to be pretty straightforward. The young barmaid belongs to the 19th century tradition of French realist painting. She's from a humble background and so anonymous that she's not even mentioned in the title of the painting, which is more conventional than, say, 'Dejeuner sur L'Herbe'. At first sight, that is. Look more closely and we realise that there is a mirror behind her, and that her reflection is not where it ought to be, ie behind her, but off to the right. And then there is a sinister-looking cove in a hat who appears to be standing where we stand, in front of the picture.

It's hard not to feel that there's a story here, but what is it? Is the girl being propositioned? Is she suffering existential ennui? Or is the sinister cove a reference to mortality, Manet himself being close to death? The distorted reflection demands an explanation we can't give, while the young woman's expression is unreadable.

Manet, A Bar at the Folies-Bergere, 1874
In fact it's not unlike the expression of the young mother in 'The Tempest', a painting which must hold some sort of record for the number of different interpretations it has inspired. To the non-art historian this must seem puzzling. After all, there's nothing immediately odd about the painting. In fact the scene is rather ordinary. There are no mythical beings or monsters or people wandering around with severed heads, just a woman breastfeeding a baby while a man stands nearby. There's a town in the background, over which a storm is breaking, but not very dramatically.

So what makes art historians tear their hair out over this charming but innocuous little picture? The absence of a story. Convention tells us that Italian artists of Giorgione's time did not paint anonymous figures in fields - as 19th century French artists did. They painted scenes, mostly from the Bible and sometimes from Classical mythology. A man in a painting other than a portrait was a saint or a Greek god or a hero; a woman was Mary or Venus or a nymph. Yes, there were other, more obscure characters, and some fairly recondite Biblical scenes, but the idea of placing a random person in a landscape was unthinkable.

The business of interpreting this painting has kept generations of scholars busy. One version sees the baby as Dionysos, who is being cared for by his aunt Ino after Zeus killed his mother Semele with a thunderbolt, while Hermes stands by. There's one potential problem with this interpretation, since X-rays show that the male figure was painted over the figure of a second woman, but a classically educated person might well have seen lightning and thought, aha, Zeus. Others see a Christian story here, such as the rest on the flight into Egypt, although the late addition of the male figure is problematic again.

What I love about all this is the fact that so many people have spent so much time looking at this little painting. To my mind, the main reason for studying art history in the broad sense is to get more pleasure out of individual works of art. It's fun to pick out influences and guess at relationships, but in the end it's the looking that counts. And the pleasure of looking.

In the Age of Giorgione is at the RA until June.

Friday, 11 March 2016

Modern Painters: Rose Wylie & Michael Simpson

Rose Wylie, Girl in Lights (artist copyright)
On Saturday I gave a lecture to the Contemporary Art Society for Wales, an organisation founded in the 1930s and still going strong today. Its main activities include buying artworks for public collections in Wales and putting on lectures by contemporary artists and art historians of one kind and another. The members I met over lunch included an artist whose zest for life belied her 92 years; she gave me hope for the future!

Since I was more or less in Cardiff I thought I would pop over to the Chapter Arts Centre to have a look at Rose Wylie's paintings. I say 'pop', but in fact the journey took almost as long as the trip from Bristol, thanks to my foolish decision to trust the Sat Nav on my phone. At one point the machine took me past the same pub, bookies and nail bar THREE TIMES without even a hint of an apology. Never again.

Rose Wylie, Black Strap (Red Fly) & (Syracuse Lineup), 2014 (artist copyright)
The only Wylie painting I'd seen before this is 'Silent Light (Film Notes)', which I first saw hanging in the Jerwood Gallery a couple of years ago. I loved it immediately, but without knowing quite why, and I hoped that my detour to Chapter would help me understand the attraction.

Founded in the early 1970s in a Victorian school building, Chapter is a wonderful place, multi-faceted and welcoming; I like the fact that the art gallery is right next to the bustling cafe/bar, so that you can wander in on a whim and see what's going on, in this case 'Tilt the Horizontal into a Slant', an exhibition of Rose Wylie's large, exuberant canvases. Once again my first reaction was one of pleasure, and once again I couldn't immediately tell what it was I liked about the work.

Rose Wylie, Sack Barrow: Factory Pin-up, 2014 (artist copyright)
The style is what they used to call Neo-Expressionist, which doesn't tell you much. It reminds me of early David Hockney pictures, although Wylie herself acknowledges Philip Guston as an important influence. She trained in the dark days of the 1950s, when teachers derided would-be figurative painters - Paula Rego was studying around the same time, and was encouraged by her future husband Victor Willing to keep a Secret Sketchbook for her drawings. Guston, meanwhile, had dug his way out of the mire of Abstract Expressionism and Wylie found inspiration in his example.

Rose Wylie, Girl in Lights (detail)
In interviews Wylie comes across as straightforward, pleasantly opinionated and free of artworld nonsense. Her paintings are clever and witty. My uncertainty about them, I now realise, is related to the fact that many allude to films, and often I don't know or haven't seen the movie - walking around the Chapter show I felt at first that there was a joke I didn't get. Then I stopped trying to read the work and instead looked at the lines, the shapes and the chunks of thick paint that look as delicious as cake icing. People miss the point when they describe her work as cartoonish or child-like; these are carefully considered paintings that reflect the experience and hard work of a lifetime. But the spirit behind them is defiantly youthful.

Michael Simpson, Bench Painting 78, 2009 (artist copyright)
On the face of it the paintings of Michael Simpson, currently on show at Spike Island in Bristol, are quite different: minimal, geometric, austere. However both artists work on a large scale, both seem to take great pleasure in the business of painting, and both have a sense of humour. Like Wylie, Simpson explores external references in his work, but whereas she is inspired by contemporary film and everyday life, he delves into the work of 16th century philosopher Giordano Bruno or medieval church architecture.

Michael Simpson, Unnamed (Confessional), 2015 & Minbar (Pulpit), 2015 (artist copyright)
I was particularly struck by a series which explores the phenomenon of the leper squint, not a terrible affliction of the already-afflicted, but a hole in the church wall through which lepers and other undesirables could take part not just in services, but in the everyday social life of a community from which they were otherwise excluded. The four paintings of long ladders are both monumental and poetic; when you understand what the little black square at the top represents, they become much more...

Michael Simpson, Leper Squint 16, 4-part painting, 2014 (artist copyright)

Michael Simpson, Leper Squint 16 (detail)

Rose Wylie is at Chapter until 29 May.
Michael Simpson is at Spike Island until 27 March.