Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Art Holiday - Part One

Cecil Collins - Fools and Angels

The Divine Land (1979)

Our recent fortnight’s break gave us the opportunity to see a couple of excellent exhibitions in the course of our wanderings about the capital and the bicycle-filled streets of Cambridge (and if you want a top-class, old-fashioned wicker bicycle basket, this is the place to come). In the Central St Martin’s School of Art, just off the busy streets of Holborn, with their old tram underpasses currently undergoing reconstruction, there was an unmissable exhibition of Cecil Collins’ art entitled Angels and Fools. The line of posters on the walls outside set his painting The Divine Land, with its plump golden angel hovering above a veil-like mountain, against the steady and noisome stream of cars and busses. Inside the building, two rooms were given over to his paintings and graphic works. This was an exhibition which was evidently a labour of love for its curators, who showed a real personal passion for and even pride in the art on display. This was, after all, the college where Collins taught for many years; And he was an immensely popular teacher. When asked to retire in 1975, a move motivated by internal politics and a desire to dictate the manner of art which was deemed ‘official’, students and fellow artists wrote so many letters in support that he was allowed to stay on.

One of the ladies in the gallery remembered her own experiences as his pupil with real affection. He encouraged the view of art as a spiritual pursuit, something which put him at odds with the more materialistic concerns of the modern postwar generation. His work is certainly the opposite of pop art, focussing on the personalised expression of universal archetypes rather than the celebration of the ephemera of a consumer society. It didn’t share the political engagement of the 60s and 70s, either, preferring to partake of a wider sense of morality which saw the source of conflict in the divided self. This was also indicative of the strongly religious, if non-denominational, nature of his art, which put him definitively beyond the pale at this time.

Procession of Fools (1940)

Collins stayed true to his vision throughout his life, as the consistency in the themes of the works here displayed testifies. He stood outside of contemporary movements, his brief confluence with surrealism which saw two of his works displayed in the International Surrealist Exhibition in London in 1936 alongside Dali and de Chirico soon diverging once they discovered the religious content of his paintings; he was summarily exiled, something which probably didn’t trouble him too much. His visions were too solid, too real to fit with the intellectual play of Freudian subconscious spectres and abrupt juxtapositions which was the matter of the Surrealist imagination. His work didn’t share the violent sexuality which haunts much surrealist work, either. If his work did have any affinity with the movement, it would be more likely to be with the neglected works of its female exponents, such as Dorothea Tanning. He can loosely be placed in a tradition of visionary British artists springing from William Blake and Samuel Palmer; but only in the sense that they focussed their inner eye through the expression of a personal symbolic transformation of figure and landscape. The outer world re-shaped by the inner.

It’s interesting to discover some of the artists with whom he formed friendships over his lifetime, themselves often mavericks and outsiders viewed with a suspicious eye by the artistic establishment. Through them, we can sense some kind of alternative stream of British art and culture running through the mid twentieth century, aware of the modernist orthodoxy and happy to use elements of it without buying into it wholesale. He met David Jones, the poet, engraver and illustrator whilst he was living with Eric Gill in his commune at Pigotts, near High Wycombe. The two followed a similarly idiosyncratic path, although Jones’ pictures, with their complex Celtic intertwinings of pencil, ink and watercolour drew on established forms as subject matter, weaving classical, Arthurian, Welsh and modern figures and landscapes together to form a cross-cultural and temporal tapestry (you can see one of these paintings later in the Kettles Yard exhibition). Eric Gill himself might also have been a fellow spirit, but whilst they enjoyed intense discussions, Gill’s autocratic nature and, shall we say, personal interpretation of the Catholicism to which he directed his art precluded any close friendship. His blank refusal to address Collins’ wife Elisabeth directly also marked a view of women wholly antithetical to Cecil’s own views (not to mention being incredibly rude).

Cecil and Elisabeth at Dartington

Paul Nash was a good friend (see a previous post for more on this artist) and at one point wanted Cecil to write the text for the first book of his art to be published. Nash’s imbuing of familiar landscapes such as the Whittenham Clumps with the potency of a personal symbolism can be likened to the inspiration which Collins took from the hills, rivers and trees around their homes in Totnes and Dartington in Devon. Cecil and Elisabeth were first drawn to this area by the artist Mark Tobey, then director of the art studio at Dartington Hall, the progressive centre for arts and rural crafts set up by Leonard and Dorothy Elmhirst. Tobey shared with him his interest in Eastern cultures and religious traditions (he practised the Baha’ai faith himself). He also became friends with the potter Bernard Leach, whose absorption of zen ideas of rough form and the acceptance and incorporation of ‘imperfections’ into the work were also influential. The poet and translator Arthur Waley, an expert on Chinese culture, was also a regular at the Hall at this time. One of the books he translated was Wu Cheng En’s Monkey, a classic 16th century tale of a pilgrimage of Fools which may well have impinged on Collins’ consciousness.

Collins also met the painter and set designer Hein Heckroth, who had come over to England with the Ballet Joos, who had emigrated en masse to escape Nazi Germany. Heckroth went on to be a designer on some of the great Powell and Pressburger films of the post-war, such as A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes. When he was interned as an enemy alien during the war, Collins took over his position as the director of the art studio. The dancing figures of his fools may reflect the presence of the ballet at Dartington, and there’s something very familiar about Heckroth’s dancing newspaper figure in The Red Shoes. Collins began to teach and Dartington and found he was really very good at it. When he took up a teaching post at the Central St Martin’s School of Art in 1951, he shared the life drawing classes with Mervyn Peake, with whom he became good friends; a good job, really, since apparently Peake tended to let him get on with it whilst he sat in a corner working on Gormenghast. Both shared a belief in the primacy of the artistic imagination, in its ability to transform the world of perception into a rich landscape of personal and universal archetypes (and you can see how Peake portrayed this through his poetry in a previous post).

Not your average teachers - Cecil and Mervyn in self-portraits

Collins was also friends with several musicians, and music plays an important role in some of his work. An early work of 1933 is titled The Music of the Worlds, and the ‘matrix’ works which he produced in the late fifties and early 60s approach the condition of improvisation in their initial spontaneous composition. He had met Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears during their visits to Dartington, and the couple became lifelong enthusiasts for and collectors of his works. He met Karlheinz Stockhausen in 1972 and the two enjoyed each others company so much that the composer would always invite the artist to sit in at rehearsals when he came into the country. When Collins designed stained glass windows for the church of St Michael and All Saints in Basingstoke, John Tavener, another musical friend, wrote an anthem especially for the dedication service.

The Artist's Wife Seated in a Tree (1944)

But the greatest influence on Collins was his wife Elisabeth, to whom he was married for 58 years, from 1931 to his death in 1989. She was much more than a muse. A significant artist herself, with two paintings included in this exhibition, she represented for him a feminine ideal. Not that he was putting her on a pedestal (although he did seat her in a tree) or reducing her individuality in any way. His portraits of her are filled with a calm self-possession, a remote detachment combining with a beatifically benevolent regard. Gazing at these pictures seems to bring you into contact with some ideal state of the soul, of balance within the world. Of Happiness, in short (several Collins pictures are entitled The Great Happiness, often depicted as a sunlike circle towards which subjects gaze). These pictures reflect both the artist’s love of his wife and his realisation of a more universal quality in her which he is also drawn to discover in himself, and to which the well known painting (a copy of which hangs in our flat) The Artist and his Wife from 1939 attests.

The 88 works in this exhibition (which include two a piece from Elisabeth and from Mark Tobey, alongside portraits and a poem from others) represent most of the major periods and themes of Collins lifework. Here are some that were displayed:

Fool Picking His Nose (1940)
Collins acknowledged the idea of the Fool originating with a suggestion from Elisabeth. The Fool, as the title of the exhibition would suggest, became one of his signature figures. The Fool represents many things, but is essentially an innocent, who views the world directly and joyfully, unclouded by the intervention of intellect or the souring of experience. He is very much in the mould of the characters depicted in William Blake’s Songs of Innocence, then. Here, the Fool picks his nose not out of any calculated disrespect for the religious authority. He is oblivious of the Bishop’s presence and simply doesn’t recognise his power. That nose needs picking, and picking now. The Fool walks under his own personal raincloud in a cartoonish fashion, but he doesn’t seem concerned by his soaking. George Harrison’s Beatles song Rain expresses a similar disregard for the exigencies of the weather. Collins uses watercolour washes over the ink drawn figures, but later Fool pictures would concentrate on the calligraphic pen lines alone. The Fool would become a more spindly figure, the twisting lines of his limbs suggesting a constant state of movement, life as a dance. As such, he is congruent with the author Charles Williams’ view of the Fool in his 1932 novel The Greater Trumps, which draws on the depiction in the traditional Tarot deck. The calligraphic effect with which the Fools were portrayed could become extremely complex and dense, as if they contained whole worlds of particulate flux and wavelike motion within their fragile frames. As in The Procession of Fools from 1940 (see above).

Sleeping Figure (1942)
This shows how the feminine form and the landscape become congruent. The sleeping figure could be the river between the banks. Her hair echoes the curlicued lines of the tree foliage, her limbs its branches. She fits into the contours of the land. Is it dreaming of her, or she of it. Both, maybe.

The Bride (1944)
The female form once more seems to merge with the tree trunk, as if it were a dress she was putting on. The hills undulate like a surging sea. The fish, with all the symbolism, Christian and otherwise, which it bears, lies calmly (dead?) in a protective circle of water, onto which the rays of the sun pour in a very physical rain. Indeed, the sun seems to be almost spitting its rays out into the land. In the background, some enormous glowing form seems to be emerging out of the mountains. Or perhaps it is the mountain itself which is being transformed.

The Island (1944)
A grove within a turbulent sea, with its own tutelary spirit. A place of sanctuary. From the waves at the side, it almost seems as if the island is moving, charting a course through this endless ocean. Typical broad-based Collins trees here, which seem to be an emergent form of the land, rather than something separate which is rooted down in it.

Elizabeth, the Artist’s Wife (1950)
One of his portraits of Elisabeth as feminine ideal, here with moonlit night landscape, an open book (the book of wisdom?) and the shining light of the Grail, a feminine symbol, behind. The veil drawn back from the window suggests the threshold between inner and outer worlds. Hymn to Night (1951) draws a similar parallel between the feminine and nighttime worlds. Again, the girl’s hair echoes the curving trails of foliage and river. The hands are crossed over the breast in a gesture which could be sacred, or could be adolescent modesty. It’s interesting to compare this with Edvard Munch’s Puberty, in which the young girl covering up her nakedness is menaced by a looming mass of dark shadow, which seems to be about to engulf her. Here the landscape offers no such threat, and the girl is calm (and once more emerging from a tree) and ready to go out into the nightlands, illuminated by the enormous moon and watched over by the drifting angel who may be an emanation of it.

Eternal Bride (1963)
This comes from the period when Collins was working with what he termed the matrix. This was a form of spontaneous composition in which he opened himself up to the chance workings of unconscious creation by crossing the canvas with sweeping brush strokes (sometimes even going so far as to close his eyes). He would then let his conscious mind contemplate the results and draw out the figures or archetypes which he perceived in and between the lines. Here, the feminine figure walks through a fiery landscape cradling the grail. At her feet lies a translucent egg and in the background some kind of forge sparks with violent creation.

Nocturne (1987)
A late painting soaked in the gradations of a single blue tone. The figure is very Marian, with her traditional veil of blue reflecting and reflected by the rest of the painting’s palette. Is her veil the colour of the moonlit night or is the moonlit night the colour of her veil? Here she is haloed in moonlight, which seeps out hazily from behind cloud. Again, Collins equates the feminine with the night and the moon, a traditional archetypal correspondence. The halo before her face also suggests a hand upon which the head rests in contemplation. The lines stretching out to a curved horizon behind her, following the outline contours of her body, seem to measure out some sort of plain or ploughed field.

Cecil Collins is an artist who means a lot to us. We take the train to Totnes and Dartington frequently and walk along the river next to which Cecil and Elisabeth lived and up to the Hall where he taught and worked, through the landscape which inspired so much of his work. Seeing all these pictures gathered together, some seen before in books, some at High Cross house in Dartington was an intense and powerful experience, like meeting someone in the flesh who you’ve previously only seen in photographs. It felt as if it was a similarly personal response which drew the curators to mount this exhibition. Hopefully it marks a further stage in the rediscovery of Collins as an important and individual British artist, part of a parallel tradition of visionary outsiders who stand outside the canons of orthodox art histories.

Next, to Cambridge and Kettles Yard.

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