Saturday, 11 February 2012

Into the Light at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum

The Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter has re-opened after four years of extensive refurbishment, the space inside considerably opened out and expanded, revealing old iron columns and incorporating one of the old outer walls as an internal feature – a piece of architectural history in itself. The first art exhibition in the new galleries to the rear is Into The Light: French and British Painting from Impressionism to the Early 1920s, which gathers together a wide range of artists who were associated with Impressionism and post-Impressionism, and who drew inspiration from it. The exhibition mainly focuses on the impressionist landscape, and there are two major themes around which it revolves, both in fitting with the rural nature of the area: seascapes and riverside scenes, and rural landscapes.

Monet - the Church at Vetheuil
The sea pictures begin with Eugene Boudin’s The Beach At Deauville from 1863. In fact, this is as much a study of sky and clouds, with the horizon line set low. The horse and cart in the foreground indicated that this is a working environment rather than a tourist destination. Boudin bridged the old and new artistic worlds, being acquainted with Courbet and Millet in his youth, and later becoming friends with Monet, with whom he took part in the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874. He was an influential progenitor of the Impressionist ideal of working outdoors in order to capture the effects of natural light, and encouraged the young Monet to do so, and to accompany him on his painting excursions. Whilst he provided enormous inspiration and encouragement to the Impressionist artists in their formative years, his own works tended to persist with a more traditional approach. Renoir’s Moulin Hoet Bay, Guernsey comes from a later period of Impressionism when he was using warm colours veering towards the red end of the spectrum. The rocks are blurred and fiery, as if they are about to combust, and the sky is strangely fleshy. This is a very corporeal seascape, flushed and sensual in a rather suffocating way. His painting of St Tropez from 1898-90 tones down the colours a little and conveys a sense of hazy heat. There’s a spectral atmosphere hanging over the scene. A transparent figure sketched in white hovers on the water, and the headland and cliffs across the bay rise up like a vision revealing itself in the clouds, a glimpse of a paradisical realm, a Shangri La with fantastic, golden domed buildings clinging to its sheer slopes. Monet’s The Church At Vetheuil (1880) divides the canvas along the centre, the elevated church and the white-walled buildings of the village clustered around it reproduced in a series of short, dabbed strokes of colour as rippling, upended reflections in the river’s water which fills the bottom half of the painting. The contrast between the solidity of the upper half and the transitory, flickering quality of the lower could almost stand for the division between the old styles of painting and the new impressionist styles. His The Museum at Le Havre (1883) sets the turquoise, light blue and marine green strokes blending to create the reflective waters of the harbour against the angular, intersecting planes of boat sails, the solid blocks of the buildings, and the swirling greys and whites of the overcast sky.

The Beach at Walberswick - Philip Wilson Steer
Philip Wilson Steer was a founder member and guiding figure within the New English Art Club, which was created in 1886, and which offered Walter Sickert his first opportunity to exhibit his work in 1888. Steer’s The Beach at Walberswick (1889) is one of several paintings depicting this Suffolk stretch of the south coast. It’s soft and blurred, composed of soothing ochre reds and turquoise blues. The acute curve of the vermillion sands, with its splayed out terminus, could almost be the single bold, arcing sweep of a large brush. This curve of beach resembles some of Munch’s similarly rounded and edgeless depictions of the Nordic coastline, albeit on a smaller scale. The white dresses of the three women on the left of the painting echo the white sails of the boats in the upper right, and the red of their bonnets and bows add splashes of vivid life, contrasting with the subdued, drifting haze of the seascape in which they are positioned, and sets them slightly apart from its dreamy ambience. Stanope Forbes was born in Dublin, but established himself in England, founding and becoming the leading figure of the Newlyn School of painting in Cornwall. Just as Boudin’s painting was more sky than sea, Forbes’ A Fish Sale on a Cornish Beach (1885) concentrates more on the beach as a working environment. In this context, it’s a marketplace, with glistening fish laid out for inspection by pensive-looking fishwives. Where this picture is large and richly peopled, his Beach Scene St Ives (1886) concentrates more on the quality of the beach itself, the scratchily painted surface seemingly attempting to emulate the particulate grain of the sand, glaring white in the sun. beach huts and a cluster of people in the middle distance break up the broad stripes of sand, sea and sky. Forbes, in what could be seen as a philosophically punning gesture, has scratched his name and the date of the painting on the bottom right, written in sand.

July Sun - Henry Scott Tuke
Laura Knight also spent some time in Newlyn in the early twentieth century, living there or in Lamorna from 1908-18, and returning regularly thereafter. Her The Beach (1908) is also richly peopled, this time by holidaymakers and people just enjoying the sun. Children are to the forefront, tentatively dipping toes in the waters of a pit they have dug in the sand. It’s all rather cluttered, and detracts from the sweep of shoreline and beach behind. Henry Scott Tuke was another painter who based himself in Cornwall for lengthy periods of time, in his case in Falmouth. His July Sun (1913) depicts a young male nude, seen from the back, sitting on the rocks by the seashore. Tukes uses sensuous and sinuous strokes for his back, catching the glints of light across the shoulders, and using patches of lichenous green of the sort which aroused official opprobrium when Renoir used them in his 1876 painting Study: Torso Sunlight Effect. This echoes the green of the sea, whilst the tousle of brown hair is set against the brown of the rocks just beyond the inlet. Tukes painted many young male nudes, often seen from the back, or half turned away from the observer’s perspective, kept at a discrete distance. Tuke became acquinted with Oscar Wilde and the Uranian artistic circles in London in the 1880, and the beatific, understated homoeroticism of his Cornish pictures has led to his rediscovery in the wake of the gay liberation of the 70s and the subsequent interest in unearthing hidden currents of homosexual history and culture.

Boats at Royan - Samuel John Peploe
Walter Sickert and James Abbot McNeill Whistler were both city dwellers, and associated with city scenes. Sickert had been Whistler’s assistant and pupil in his early days as an aspiring artist, and the two both travelled down to Cornwall to paint. Sickert’s Clodgy Point, Cornwall (1883-4) and Whistler’s Cliffs and Breakers, St Ives (1884), are both small sketches rather than completed works, and are rather overwhelmed by the broad gilt frames in which they are displayed, their later renown granting their merest daubs instant reverence. Whistler’s later Bathing Posts, Britanny (1893) is the most interesting of these studies, its few restrained brushstrokes approximating, in miniature, the qualities of his semi-abstract London nocturnes. The colours in all three of these sketches is subdued and full of murk and shadow rather than light. Such can certainly not be said of the two small paintings by John Duncan Ferguson and Samuel John Peploe, both associated with the Scottish Colourists group. They admired Matisse and the Fauvists, with their strong sense of bright colour liberally applied to broadly outlined and blocked off areas, creating compositions full of dazzling contrasts – the world as a pulsating rainbow. They both travelled to the south of France to take advantage of its bright Mediterraenean sun (not too much of that in Scotland), and the two pictures here were both painted in Royen on the west coast, near Bordeaux, in 1910. Ferguson’s Twilight, Royan sets heavily outlined figures and sailing boats, flecked with deep red and bright green, against a blue grey sea, its liquid surface suggested by a series of separate brush strokes, much broader, rougher and sparser than those employed by the Impresionists. Peploe’s Boats at Royan uses brighter fauvist colours to evoke the daylight glare. Strong outlines once more delineate the boats, with broad and long strokes used throughout. The glistening gloss of the oil paints suggests the dazzle of the sun, and smeared, serpentine squiggles of orange and green the shimmering reflections of masts and hulls in the water.

Vanessa Bell was part of the Bloomsbury set in the early years of the twentieth century, sister of Virginia Woolf, wife of the influential art critic Clive Bell, and close friends with and later lifelong partner and companion of fellow English post-impressionist Duncan Grant. Her painting Studland Beach (1912) is divided into three wide areas, each with their own singular colour or tone: the dunes, the beach and the deep blue sea. Both these and the figures and objects within them are broadly outlined with rough strokes, the lines sometimes left broken, allowing the marks of the original gestures to remain. The painting within these outlines is also rough and imprecise, with the blocked off areas filled in a seemingly haphazard and instinctive fashion. The spatial perspective is flattened, the surface heraldic or like a design in stained glass, on a piece of pottery or for a mural. This all adds to the powerful ritualistic air of the painting, its sense of immediacy and pending revelation. It was included as part of the recent exhibition of Bell and Grant’s work at the Brighton Museum and Art Gallery, Radical Bloomsbury: here’s what I said about it in that context: “A mixture of the formal and representational can be seen in careful balance in Vanessa Bell’s Studland Beach (1912). Areas of bold and clearly distinguished colour are contained with heavily outlined and simplified shapes. There is a very mysterious and almost ritualistic atmosphere to this painting, which makes it much more than a simple beachside holiday scene. All the figures are facing away from us. The two in the foreground, sitting in the dune area, are distinguished by their dark reddish dresses (the red of life?) and the straw coloured hats which take the place of heads and further set them apart from the beach area. A clear expanse of bone-white sand separates them from the other group, who cluster around the bathing tent which breaks the transverse sweep of the lines of dune, beach and sea. Four figures huddle as if in obeisance around a fifth, who stands in front of the tent as if on the threshold of some portal. She wears a simple blue dress, the blue of the ocean into which she is just about to plunge. But there is a sense of finality to the scene, as if she is not likely to return once she has passed through the white doorway. This is a scene of farewell and departure. The whole picture is suffused with an air of dream and memory, landscapes and people recollected and used as the stage for an interior psychodrama, a sense enhanced by the formal simplification of the composition. In this sense, the beach looks forward to the flat, desert-like planes and city squares populated with dream objects by Dali, de Chirico and Tanguy. The picture is filled with a quiet sense of loss, unsurprisingly so given that Bell had lost her mother when she was six, her half-sister Stella Hills when she was 18, and her father when she was 25. Her sister Virginia would make her first suicide attempt a year later. All of which makes the picture hugely affecting and filled with a premonitory mystery, presaging a passage into the great blue beyond which has swallowed the sky and now forms a universal and all-embracing element”.

Louveciennes - Camille Pissarro
The other strand of painting in the exhibition consists of various kinds of rural subjects and landscapes. There are several depicting village scenes. Camille Pisarro’s Louveciennes (1870) was painted in the village to the west of Paris, now swallowed up in its modern conurbations, in which he had settled with his family in 1869. The end of a row of terraced houses on the left border of the picture seems to demarcate the boundary of the village, with the trees filling the right hand border indicating the beginning of the natural world beyond. In between, two figures stand with their backs to us, gazing down over the plains below the ridge, either setting off on or returning from a promenade. The calmness of the picture, its balancing of buildings, trees, figures and clouds, belies the chaos which was to overwhelm France that year, with the onset of the brief Franco-Prussian war, which would drive Pisarro and his family to seek peace in England. Alfred Sisley also lived in Louveciennes, which was where his La Petite Place (La Rue du Village) of 1874 was painted. It’s a study in greys and greyish blues, with the cobbles of the road, the bricks of the walls and the slates of the roofs standing against the more graduated, chaotic patchwork of the overcast sky. His later Bords de Riviere, ou Les Oies (1897) is a simpler, almost cartoonish work, a printed lithograph. Its simply outlined landscape, geese and figures, ovoid clouds and pale colours take it well beyond the characteristics of Impressionism, looking more like an illustration from a children’s book. Gauguin’s Landscape at Pont Aven (1888) was painted a couple of years after he moved to the small town near the Breton coast. Its dizzying foreground is created with serried rows of single short brushstrokes which gradually change direction across the canvas, making the ground look as if it shifting in a billowing sweep – following the passage of a gust of wind through the grass, perhaps. The technique bears the hallmarks of Van Gogh, whom Gauguin had met in 1886, and with whom he would share his ill-fated tenancy later in 1888. The upright spike of the church spire anchors the solid sky, painted with rigidly parallel slanting strokes, against this unstable earth. Its pointed triangularity contrasts with the curving and forking irregularity or the blossoming spring tree, whose branches cut across its surface.

Yellow Landscape - Roderic O'Connor
Other paintings depict farmed or cultivated landscapes, or lovingly tended paradise gardens. Charles Conder’s Apple Blossom of 1893 paints an orchard in light, soft colours, olive greens and pink-tinged whites. Conder was associated with the Aesthetic movement, with Whistler and the Yellow Book, and lived at Cheyne Walk, Chelsea in London, a locale which embodied the spirit of the artistic times, having played host at various times to both Whistler, Rossetti and Swinburne. Armand Guillaumin’s Les Pommiers a Damiette (1893) is another orchard scene, this one limning its trees with strong outlines, and casting dark green nets of shadow behind them. The colours are dazzlingly bright yellows, greens and blues, and the style, both in terms of the vivid palette, the wavering forms of the trees and the application of the paint, draws from Van Gogh and Gauguin. Irish artist Roderic O’Connor’s Yellow Landscape (1892), painted at Pont Aven, takes these influences and tunes them to a hallucinatory pitch. It’s fields are thickly painted in defiantly non-naturalistic colours, with mustard yellow plough furrows. The skies are striated with streaks of mint green, and the shadows are striped patches of red and blue. In fact, the whole composition is made up of stripes. This is a boiled sweet landscape, thickly laid on with oils packed with e-numbers. It’s the kind of landscape depicted in manic adverts for children’s sweets or flavour-enhanced and sugar-saturated drinks, or in Lennon’s lyrics for Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds. A picture which can send you into spasms of manic energy if you gaze at it too long. You can calm yourself down by looking at Wynford Dewhurst’s Summer Mist (1919), painted in the valley of La Creuse, a landscape in softly blurred lavender and lilac. It would be perfect on the cover of a romance novel, an accompaniment to purple Mills and Boon prose. What appears to be the shape of a ruined castle tower in the distance adds to its air of dreamy romanticism.

Apple Blossom, Riverbridge Farm, Blackpool - Lucien Pissarro
George Clausen’s Winter Work (1883-4) offers a de-glamourised, naturalistic view of rural life, an anti-pastoral vision of hard labour in a muddy and cold landscape. There’s certainly nothing romantic about the beets which are being hauled up by hand from the earth. They’re not even intended for human consumption, but are animal feed. Figures loom large in Clausen’s composition, the working aspect of the landscape foregrounded. The ‘studied impartiality’ to which Clausen aspired in his naturalistic work stands as a contrasting approach to the more expressionistic and painterly direction taken by the post-Impressionists. It’s more akin to the social realism which would be favoured in the later stages of post-revolutionary Russia and Eastern Europe, albeit without the propagandistic elements. There is nothing heroic or noble about these workers. Camille Pissarro’s A Corner of the Meadow at Eragny (1902) offers a contrasting view of a paradise garden, a small space set apart from worldly concerns. This is the garden of Pissarro’s house in what was then a small village to the north west of Paris. A woman in a blue dress with a basket on her arm tends to the borders in this calm oasis, contained within high, protective walls. Similar scenes are depicted by Lucien Pissarro and Walter Sickert. Lucien Pissarro was Camille’s son, who came to live in London in 1890. He knew Sickert and was friends with Spencer Gore, exerting an influence on his Neo-Impressionist style and becoming a founder member of the Camden Town group. His Apple Blossom, Riverbridge Farm, Blackpool (1921) depicts a scene in the South Devon coastal village. The bulbous massing of pink clouds above the arcing curves of the hills and the stepped outlines of the ascending treeline echo the stippled sprays of spring blossom on the orchard trees, behind which the solid, angular geometry of the farmhouse provides a central focus for the composition. Walter Sickert’s Rushford Mill, Chagford (1916) is another scene painted in a Devon village (Chagford is just west of Exeter), from a period when he was living in Bath. Its colours are darker and more subdued than Pissarro’s, but it is nevertheless a significant departure from his Camden Town interiors and theatre scenes, with their drab browns and dark olive greens, and their general aura of smoke and grime. Even this inveterate city dweller liked to get out to the country now and again.

Devonshire Valley No.1 - Robert Bevan
Sickert was a great influence on the London artists who would found the Camden Town Group of urban neo-impressionists in 1911. This emerged from Sickert’s Fitzroy Street Group, and later expanded into the London Group. Paintings by three members of the Camden Town school are included here, and indicate that they weren’t bounded by the limits of the city’s sprawl. Charles Ginner’s Clayhidon (1913) depicts the buildings and surrounding farm fields of the East Devon village in the Blackdown Hills with thickly laid on paint, outlined with heavy ridges of black. This gives it the look of leaded stained glass or decorative cloisonné enamel, lending it a memorial solidity, a fixing of place and time. Robert Bevan also painted in the Blackdown Hills, which straddle the Somerset and Devon border, and lived there from 1912-13, and again from 1916-19, before moving to the Devon village of Lippitt. He had met Gauguin in Pont Aven in 1893-4, became part of Sickert’s Fitzroy Street group, and met Spencer Gore and Harold Gilman in 1908. He was particularly influenced by Gore’s Letchworth paintings. His The Chestnut Tree (1916-19) uses muted greens and browns and divides the landscapes into blocks and planes, very much in the manner of Cezanne, but with pigs. Green Devon (1919) similarly builds trees and hedgerows from a small, angular coloured pieces, which lock together like the elements of a marquetry design. Devonshire Valley No.1 (1913) uses non-naturalistic colours – bright purples, pinks and greens – and favours curves rather than angular blocks to depict its trees and hedgerows. It’s a soft landscape in which even the cottages and farmhouses lack definite edges or sharp corners. It was always popular and frequently on display in the Royal Albert Museum before its lengthy closure for refurbishment.

The Beanfield, Letchworth - Spencer Gore
Spencer Gore was also a member of the Fitzroy Street Group and a founding presence in the Camden Town Group. In 1912, he went to stay at fellow Camden Town artist Harold Gilman’s house in Letchworth, a garden city in Hertfordshire founded in 1903 as a pioneering planned new town. Gore painted a number of pictures during his stay, in which he combined post-impressionism styles and colours with new elements of modernism, which pointed the way to wholly new directions. Sadly, he was not able fully to explore these directions himself, since he died of influenza in 1914, but his work was to prove highly influential on other artists. The Beanfield, Letchworth has the look of a newly woven tapestry, the bottom border a zig-zag of coloured stripes representing subsoil strata. The whole is composed of simple forms and contrasting layers of colour. Gore may have drawn from his experience of designing murals for the underground London night club The Cave of the Golden Calf, which opened just off Regent Street in 1912. Non-naturalistic post-impressionist colours predominate, with royal blue and aquamarine green trees, and a yellow sky like later LA smog sunsets. Clouds and trees are reduced to blocky outlines, monotoned shapes. The factory chimneys on the horizon emit puffs of smoke which look like the progressive phases of the moon. They could almost be fuzzy felt shapes stuck on to a fabric canvas. The Cinder Path uses more of the ochres, purples and blues familiar from his Camden Town paintings, the ochres for the clodded soil and the bricks of the buildings in the distance. The left of the painting shades into greens and yellows, with small areas of blue and two lines of vivid scarlet. The upright line of the signpost to the right of the path is replaced by slanting fence posts and spindly trees to the left, lending this side a more unstable, chaotic feel. The upper part of the sky is yellow, like that in the Beanfield, but the dark treeline on the horizon is surmounted by massive grey ranges of cloud, largely undelineated, save for a few inlaid lines of darker grey within and lighter deposits on top. It is like a lowering mass of rock, like the sides of the slate mines above Blauenau Ffestioniog. These cloud cliffs are echoed in the cinder path itself, both in colour and form. The path is a jagged rift of coal dust grey, a crevasse tearing through the centre of the landscape composition, destabilising it and causing the slippage to the left. The precision with which Gore laid out the formal patterning of the painting can be seen in an accompanying preparatory sketch, in which he has drawn a geometrical grid upon which the elements are plotted.

This is an absorbing and diverse exhibition with which to open the transformed Royal Albert Memorial Museum’s new galleries, and marks the welcome and much needed return of this institution to Exeter. I’ve certainly been dropping in regularly in the course of daily chores to see odd paintings or artefacts, and it affords the citizens of Exeter a fine opportunity to step aside from the commercial concerns which preoccupy the rest of the city and find something to spark off the imagination. The exhibition continues until 11th March.

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