Tuesday, 19 March 2013

British Art Up North: Leeds, Wakefield, Manchester and Birmingham

PART TWO – The Twentieth Century

Walter Sickert - O Nuit D’Amour
Walter Sickert’s O Nuit D’Amour in Manchester shares the unconventional perspective of Gwen John’s A Corner of the Artist’s Room In Paris (see Part One), one drained of drama. The warm chandelier glow of a restaurant, in which a violinist serenades the diners, is seen through four window panes (frames within the frame) set in the dim, mossy green wall panels (a green which is characteristic of Sickert) and the deeper darkness of the night beyond which takes up most of the composition. The figures inside are blurred and indistinct, and the implied sound of the violin and the buzz of convivial chatter muted by the windows. This heightens the sense of being shut out, of being a remote voyeur of someone else’s romantic evening. The Blackbird of Paradise (1896-8) in Leeds is a portrait of a smiling woman dressed in black, with a black-feathered headdress capping her dark plumage. Her face is painted with thick curving strokes, building up layers of pale foundation and rosy rouge. The scarlet lips and earring contrast with her black outfit. She is presumably one of the performers from the music halls which Sickert frequented in the late Victorian and Edwardian periods, the Old Bedford being a favourite. This portait differs from his usual compositions which drew on these environs. They tended to incorporate stage surroundings and the seats, stalls and boxes of the theatre itself, along with their occupants. The Miner (1936) in Birmingham is a picture of down to earth romanticism, with the returning miner, face still blackened, embracing his wife at the door, drawing her into a coal-dusted kiss. There is a sense of immediate and passionate need, which can’t wait until he crosses the threshold. Perhaps there has been an accident, and she had feared him dead. The flagon under his arm suggests that there is something to celebrate. The underlying narrative is left ambiguous, allowing us to provide our own details.

Wood in Richmond Park - Spencer Gore
Two artists influenced by Sickert, Spencer Gore and Robert Bevan, have paintings here which move beyond the observational urban scenes which typified the work of the Camden Town and London groups to which they were attached. Bevan made regular trips down to Somerset, staying at a farm in the Blackdown Hills, near the Devon border. Here, he painted rural scenes, often with farmhouses and animals included. In their subtle transformations of the landscape into clearly outlined, angular forms, they adapted the post-impressionism of Cezanne and Gauguin into a particularly English idiom, as can be seen in Dunn’s Cottage (1915) in Leeds. Gore’s Wood in Richmond Park (1913-14), in Birmingham, used the same subdued palette of ochres, olive greens and mustard yellows for its receding ranks of tree boles as he used for his town and city scenes of Letchworth and London. Sadly, it would be one of the last paintings he finished; he caught pneumonia after getting soaked during an outdoor painting session and died on 25th March 1914.

There are a number of works by artists associated with the Slade School of Art in the early part of the century, all of whom were searching for some new means of expression, a break from the traditions of the Victorian age (a search vividly described in David Boyd Haycock's book A Crisis of Brilliance). They wished to evade the orthodoxies of the Royal Academy, but were also suspicious of the official alternatives promoted in Bloomsbury circles by the critic Roger Fry. Fry had organised an exhibition at the Grafton Galleries in London in 1910 called Monet and the Post-Impressionists which introduced the colourful and formally inventive paintings of Matisse, Gauguin, Van Gogh and, above all, Cezanne to the London art world. Such vivid works, soaked in the light of the Mediterraenean, proved a particular inspiration to artists such as Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, both of whom were firmly ensconced in the Bloomsbury clique. But to others, they were something to react against, not least because of Fry’s patronage. He was a man who had a strong, opinion-forming influence on the artistic direction of the day, his ideas coming to carry the weight of received wisdom. They were codified in fellow Bloomsbury acolyte Clive Bell’s 1914 book whose declamatory title, Art, seemed to indicate the drawing up of a definitive statement on the state of things, the setting down of a newly established aesthetic. To a new, rebellious and idealistically ambitious generation, Fry was a controlling father figure whose influence they sought to break away from. Richard Nevinson, Mark Gertler, Paul Nash, Edward Wadsworth, David Bomberg, Wyndham Lewis and William Roberts all tried to find their own visual style, to depict their own particular experiences of the changing world, their own way of seeing and sense of place, drawing on the example of Cezanne to some extent, and on other more turbulent currents of modernism cutting a swathe across the continent. Stanley Spencer was also at the Slade in the pre-war period, but, as with Francis Bacon, I confess to having a blind spot where his paintings are concerned, and will leave them to the many others who better appreciate his work.

The Vorticists pursued a more radically modern direction than the post-impressionism adapted to English climates by the Camden Town and London groups. They drew on the angular forms and noisy, aggressively self-promoting rhetoric of the Italian Futurists. The latter aspect was a speciality of Wyndham Lewis, never a man to worry unduly about making or keeping friends. Richard Nevinson was a particular Futurist acolyte for a while, and collaborated with the leading (and invariably loud) voice of the movement, Filippo Marinetti, whose spell he had fallen under when he had visited London for an exhibition and accompanying performances in 1912. The English version of the Futurist Manifesto, published in 1914, volubly set itself against almost everything which had gone before and which came to mind. It was swiftly superceded by Wyndham Lewis’ Vorticist manifesto, set out in his magazine Blast, which immediately caught the eye with the striking explosive graphic design of its cover. This also set about loudly decrying everything else which had preceded it or which was going on at the time as being a load of old rubbish. Both were inherently macho movements, glorying in manifestos-at-dawn scrapping (whether verbal or physical – the one frequently spilling over into the other). The noise and artillery blast of war was the ultimate expression of its valorisation of the iron poetry, power station noises and harsh factory rhythms of the machine age. First hand experience of the conflict soon put paid to such hollow, strutting rhetoric, however. Nevinson worked with his foreign correspondent father in a Quaker ambulance unit in the first year of the war, tending to French soldiers in a railway shed in Dunkirk, temporarily converted into a hospital ominously known as the Shambles. His painting La Patrie reflects this experience, and put paid to any of the notions of the war as an endeavour of patriotic heroism, the ideals of clean and noble sacrifice promulgated by the relentless propoganda.

La Patrie - Richard Nevinson
Richard Nevinson’s La Patrie (1916) in Birmingham depicts a dark shed filled with bodies, limbs straight lines set at sharply steepled angles. A new admission is being carried in on a stretcher, his legs forming a pyramid which is highlighted by the narrow rectangle of light greyly penetrating the gloom. Features are shadowed, eyeless scars and open-mouthed gashes, set in granitic, sculpted grimaces of pain or vacant gapes of numbed finality. Bandages provide some of the few curved lines in the composition, blood staining their grubby whiteness offering the only hint of primary colour. The clenched fist of the man in the foreground, who stares upward into the darkness, is a spiral of light olive against the surrounding blackness, and forms a focal point (the regard of the man lying on his front to the left also draws our attention to it), embodying the agonies of the bodies massed all around, and of the war at large. This isn’t a field hospital, it’s a morgue, both for those already dead and those who have been left to die. The resemblance to a cattle shed is appropriate. Sadly, Nevinson was to revert to Futurist type shortly after returning home, and was soon bragging about his war experiences, turning them into self-aggrandising tales of personal endurance and daring escapades. La Patrie remains as a powerful depiction of the charnel house reality of the conflict, however. In Silver Estuary (1925) in Leeds, Nevinson offers a pacific version of the blasted landscapes of the Western Front (as depicted by Paul Nash), the serpentine curves of the light-hazed water draw the eye towards the horizon, broken by the upright or gently leaning straight lines of the marker posts. It’s a picture full of light, the direct opposite of La Patrie.

Praxitella - Wyndham Lewis
Wyndham Lewis’ Praxitella (1921) in Leeds is a full length seated portrait (positioned on appropriately modernist furniture) of Iris Barry, with the Greek sculptor Praxiteles given a female name. The body spreads out in a series of voluminous folds and pleats exaggerated into vorticist planes, until they look like segmented plates of armour. The dark green lends a mossy aura, like age old growth covering tumbles of rocks in the dank heart of the woods. The striped bands circling the lower skirt and the piping around the hems are a fungal brown which adds to the feel of something which thrives in the shade, away from the sun. This brown is also echoed in the mushroom-like stem which props up the chair arm. The face is verdigrised, like tarnished and weathered copper. It seems shrivelled in comparison to the rest of the body, planted awkwardly on a rolled tube of a neck, the swivelling division marked by another line of fungal brown. Its surface is broken up in the cubist manner, but the blocked-off, clearly outlined facets remain coherent, giving the appearance of sheet metal hammered into an angular mask approximating human features. Red lips pout beneath a sharp cylindrical nose and the beams of yellow eyes peering with cold calculation from beneath half-shuttered lids. Their sensuality is disturbing in its utter disconnection from the rest of the face. The hands, resting in the lap, look gauntlets from a suit of armout, or the chrome, segmented claws of a robot, a term which had been invented a year earlier by Czech playwright Karel Capek in his play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots). Any resemblance to the robot Maria in Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis would be entirely appropriate given that Barry would go on to become the curator of film at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It’s probably fair to say that this isn’t a terribly flattering portrait from the point of view of the sitter, although Barry was a friend of Lewis’. It is a fascinating modern depiction of the human form re-fashioned for the machine age, however.

Pond at Garsington - Mark Gertler
Mark Gertler’s Pond at Garsington (1916) in Leeds provides a contrast between the curved organic forms of the trees and the rectilinear shape of the pond. It’s tilted upward like a mirror, reflecting the world at a slightly off-kilter angle. The bowed bough of a tree on the right hand side is mirrored in the pool, forming a zig-zag border to that side of the frame. The tree in the foreground has a solid, almost bodily presence, with a cockatoo crown and two foliate arms raised in supplication or rude gesticulation. Mark Gertler’s ambiguous relationship with Garsington and the artistic gatherings which Lady Ottoline Morell hosted there is perhaps reflected in the picture. The stillness and lack of human presence in this scene is at odds with the garrulous goings on associated with the place. Gertler was frequently the life and soul of the party, but also suffered from periods of depression and self-doubt. At times he expressed a certain amount of disdain for the social circles in which he moved, at Garsington and elsewhere, whilst generally taking advantage of the opportunities they offered him. This painting suggests a desire for a solitary centre into which he could retreat.

Jazz Party - William Roberts
William Roberts’ The Jazz Party (1923) in Leeds emphasises the solidity of bodies packed into a room in which a party is in full swing, immobile heads reduced to shrunken appendages. Their faces are like African masks, drawing on the same influences which had inspired Picasso and the Cubists. The bodies are jammed together in conglomerations of angles and curves, elbows and asses. Only the figure in the centre breaks free of the dancing mass, his shrugging shoulders and upraised hands suggesting a rapturous response to some soaring trumpet phrase. The cone of the phonograph speaker is pointed directly at the dancing mass, the implied blast of sound seemingly sweeping them into one half of the frame as if it were directing a galeforce gust of wind. The dancers look strangely stiff and joyless, coin slot mouths set in rigidly inexpressive gawps, the masks conjuring a ritualistic air. This is furthered by the group on the right hand side. The pompadoured figure in the upper right grasps his forehead and wails in a seeming agony of emotion. A comforting arm encircles him, its hand placed on his upper arm. Beneath the arching angle of his armpit, another man supports a woman who seems to have fainted, her closed eyes and open mouth suggesting unconsciousness or death. The ecstasy of jazz has produced its own mini-pieta, with the indifferent figures sitting at the table below, dealing cards and playing the records, like Roman soldiers at the foot of the cross.

Double Self-Portrait - David Bomberg
David Bomberg’s Bab-es Siq, Petra (1924) in Birmingham depicts the entrance to the ancient Arabian city carved from the desert mountains. The rocks here are painted in very fleshy tones, the shadowed cleft between the two outcrops, leading into the ancient ruins, taking on a sensual quality. The shadows are illuminated by a single small square of white, as if we are being guided towards this sacred space. Bomberg’s Double Self-Portrait (1937) in Wakefield is a portrait of the artist as a happy and contented man, with beret and stem pipe providing the traditional accoutrements. His face is flushed with a warm pastel glow and his head haloed by a billowing pink cloud. Stripes of purple paint are draped over his shoulder, as if he was wrapped in imperial splendour. Bomberg seems to be feeling good about himself here, perhaps deliberately repudiating the by now clichéd depiction of the artist as tormented bohemian outsider, wracked by the quest for a new vision and totally misunderstood by society at large.

The selection of inter-war works in the left of the two twentieth century galleries in Leeds seems to cluster around the focal point of the Unit One group which Paul Nash established in 1933, and the branching streams which it attempted to channel can also be found in the other museums under scrutiny here. Unit One, a utilitarian name if ever there was one, was intended to bring artists together in order to further the cause of the promotion and development of certain tendencies in modern art. Its membership consisted of Nash himself, Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson, John Armstrong, John Bigge, Edward Burra, Frances Hodgkins, Edward Wadsworth, and the architects Wells Coates (responsible for the Isokon Flats in Hampstead where Hepworth lived for a while, and the external stairway of which I’m standing in front of in my profile picture) and Colin Lucas. Hodgkins swiftly resigned, his place taken by Tristram Hillier. As tends to be the case with artists, however, ideological conflicts and creative differences soon manifested themselves, and the group didn’t last more than a year. It only managed to stage one exhibition, which was held at the Mayer Gallery in April 1933. Part of the reason was the tension caused by contrary attractions of the twin poles of abstraction and surrealism, which the various members were moving towards, and which many regarded as being mutually exclusive and immiscible.

Still Life (Dolomites) - Ben Nicholson
Nicholson led the branch which favoured an abstraction informed by sculptural and architectural considerations. The admission of architects into the group was a recognition of their importance in forming a recognisable and coherent modernist style which could be combined with and incorporate modernist artforms. Nicholson, Hepworth and others were also influenced by the Russian Constructivists, artists and architects who were by this time written out of the cultural history of their own country since Lenin and then Stalin’s declaration of the supremacy of social realism as the only necessary art of the state. English Constructivism would reach its austere apotheosis in Nicholson’s reliefs, one of which, Construction (1945), was on display in Manchester. Built up from layers of board (a cheap and disposable material) placed on top of each other, painted white or left in their original brown shades, and with perfect circles cut out off centre, these seemed designed to take their place on the clean white interiors of modernist houses or flats; perhaps even one of the apartments in the Isokon. The shifting sunlight would move shadows around the declivity of the recessed circle, giving it a subtly morphing aspect as the day progressed. Still Life (Dolomites) (1950) in Birmingham folds in thinly drawn outlines, including recognisable objects such as a goblet and the stupa-like lid of a teapot or samovar. Small areas of colour create a sense of depth and layered three dimensionality (a certain trompe-l’oeil effect), as well as providing bright bursts of contrast to the prevailing creams and cardboard browns. It has the feel of a die-cut pop-up waiting to be folded out, the frame laid out to become the base.

Figure for Landscape - Barbara Hepworth
Barbara Hepworth has attained a degree of widespread recognition and a reputation sustained over a long enough period such that she has now earned a whole artistic space named after her (the Hepworth Wakefield), housing her sculptures in a purpose built gallery in Wakefield, the town in which she was born. Its spacious and light filled upper floor contains works spanning her considerable range, from small, intimate marble groupings, smooth mini-megaliths, through hollowed out, boulder like forms in wood and stone, lines of space and tension marked out with tightly strung threads of string or nylon in the Constructivist, Naum Gaboesque manner, to the models for large scale public structures. These include the metallic framework of Construction (Crucifixion) from 1966 which, with its varying breadths of line, solid and outlined lengths, and red and white blocks of colour acts as an homage to Mondrian, with the addition of a yellow sun disc breaking with his strict adherence to linearity, adding an individual, female circularity; the Winged Figure from 1963, which still perches on the inverted L of its pedestal on the side of John Lewis in Oxford Street, poised to launch into a swooping flight over the sluggish traffic and thronging shoppers; and the Figure (Archaean) from 1959, which leans over with an inquisitive stoop, the oval space beneath its flattened off top acting as a lens to frame whatever lies beyond, inviting focussed observation. The Hepworth collection centres around a number of the maquettes, or sculptural models, which she prepared as guides for bronze casts. One of the most effective of these is Figure for Landscape from 1959-60, which is placed in a window looking out towards the busy ring road rushing by on the other side of the river. In this bleached bone plastercast version, it looks even more like a spectral figure, sheets billowing out around a vaguely human form, a slack, groaning gap where the face should be, the interior a shadowy, gutted hollow. It must have startled a fair few travellers after dark, illuminated momentarily in the headlights of passing vehicles. You can come across one of its verdigrised bronze casts drifting amongst the trees in the grounds of Exeter University, which it has haunted since 1965.

Superimposed Forms - Jessica Dismorr
Jessica Dismorr’s Superimposed Forms (1938) in Birmingham has the simplified abstraction of Nicholson, with a limited, subdued palette and cut out forms resembling the sculptural shapes of Hepworth. The pale creams and browns have the quality of polished marble or rock. The shapes are layered on top of one another, giving them a diaphanous, translucent quality, as if they were floating in some liquid suspension. The straight edges and angles and the sensuous curves rhyme, contrast and interconnect with one another. There’s a hint of figurative elements, of the human form, and the two greyish brown shapes at the back (or is it the front) are like doorways or Romanesque archways upended and laid on one side.

Yellow Balance - John Tunnard
John Tunnard’s Yellow Balance (1937) in Leeds looks like the plans for a mobile sculpture. A long red pin is fixed into a sloping ground, and a taut skein of black and white threads are attached to and join together two forms: a grey, boatlike shape with jutting prow and rising hull, and the yellow wind-filled spread of sail, marked with a plectrum-shaped brown thumb smudge. The grey hull rests on a black, pointed fulcrum, and a wayward swaying and bucking motion is implied, riding the swells of some invisible ocean of the air. An thick black line arcing across the canvas is suggestive of a horizon, with a black spire peering over its brim. It scores through the yellow and grey boat forms, making them seem translucent and evanescent, assemblages of Perspex and cellophane.

Abstract Composition (With String) - Francis Butterfield
Francis Butterfield’s Abstract Composition (with string) (1936) in Leeds has a palette of cubist restraint, its coppery browns and dirty creams along with its textured surface giving it a woody appearance. The straight, plank-like blocks are contrasted with the wandering line of the ‘string’. Some of its amoeboid lobes are shaded in, giving an impression of raised or recessed depth. Circles further offset the straight lines, the lower one also adding a striking element of primary colour. It looks like the mark left by a coffee mug, although this would have to be a particularly bloody cup of java (borscht-filled instead, maybe). A wobbly oval form hovers towards the to of the frame, tilting perilously close to the sharp right angle just below, a proximity which adds an element of tension to the composition (which otherwise is lent a relaxed, easy feel by the slack loops of the string).

The Shore - Paul Nash
Paul Nash was less doctrinaire than some of his Unit One colleagues, and felt the attraction of both abstraction, a kind of post-Voricist geometric ordering of the world into rationalised form, and a surrealist sensibility which introduced the incongruous and the extraordinary into the daylit world. Ultimately, however, his art was always rooted in a sense of place, an intuiting of the spirit which suffused certain special, magical locales. Dymchurch, on the South Kent coast, where he went to live after being discharged from the army, and where he recovered from physical and mental debilitation, provided an environment of prefabricated geometrical rigour, a straight-lined concrete boundary to hold back the surging curve of the sea. This was ideal surrealist territory, as well, with the shore meeting the constructed human world; the edges of the unconscious depths of dream meeting the rational world of conscious sensibility. The flat plane of the beach, an interzone between the two states, features in a lot of British surrealism, appropriately enough for an island nation. In Nash’s 1923 painting The Shore, in Leeds, the edge of the sea is demarcated by a curving line, which we understand to be shifting and unstable. Its colours and reflective surface are contiguous with the sky, and it has more in common with that realm than with the land. The boundary of the human world is marked by rigid and heavily outlined straight lines, which stretch out in angular, wedge-like stretches to the horizon, where a sharp perspective point joins with the curve of the sea. The expanse of sand is divided by parallel black lines, groins with small upright poles which are eventually eradicated by the obscurity of distance. No human form breaks the conjunction of the natural and the constructed, the line and the curve. Other Dymchurch paintings do introduce spectral figures, which glide along the concrete seawalls like apparitions in some of MR James’ stories set on the East Anglian coastline.

Forest 37 (assemblage) in Leeds is formed of wooden glove stands split in two. A diversion into sculpture using found objects, it shows Nash’s allegiance to surrealism. The imagination sees strange forms in everyday items and the broken and discarded, making the ordinary strange (and vice-versa). The appropriated glove stands form the bare, optimal idea of a forest, a dream reduction to symbolic form. Placed with a box frame, they have the feel of a stage set, some strange, Svankmajer-like puppets liable to emerge at any moment. These splintered, blasted trees, resembling the gnarled, petrified forests glimpsed from the train in the Universal horror movie Son of Frankenstein, can’t help but remind us of the devastated First World War landscapes Nash drew and painted, culminating in his stark masterpiece We Are Making A New World.

Nocturnal Landscape - Paul Nash
Nocturnal Landscape (1938) in Manchester reflects Nash’s fascination with megalithic sites. Here, the stones take on semi-organic forms. The stone on the left is heart shaped, a fruit stone, perhaps, whilst that on the right appears to be sprouting a thick shoot. Behind them is another stone which looks like a pruned stem protruding from the earth, a cutting planted in the hope that it might take root. Ragged, flapping sheets of cloud blowing across the evening blue sky almost appear to be emerging from the sheared plane of its surface, angled towards the heavens. The ground they are all planted in or resting upon is barren, however, a parched yellow, either the dry, dead grass of late summer or the hot sands of a desert. The stones themselves look like wind-scoured bone. They cast cool blue pools of shadow, the colour matching that of the sky. On the lower plane to the upper right of the picture, shaded a darker estuarine brown, two standing stones stand sentinel either side of an upright ring, the assemblage resembling the megalithic site Men-an-tol in Cornwall. It has a ritualistic air about it, an atmosphere enhanced by the scrap of moon just above it, a recumbent foetal shape suggestive of incipient rebirth. To the right is another small pile of stones and what looks like the giant shells of dead turtles, something washed ashore from the moonbright sea on the horizon. A line in the sand suggests that it has been dragged here, towards the standing stones. On the upper, arid plane, a trellis on the left adds an incongruous surrealist element (as if the megalithic landscape weren’t in itself inherently surreal), the brown of its wooden struts making some connection with the brown of the ritual plane below. Its geometrical form is more intellectual construction erected to contrast with the primal massing below, is a modern manifestation from a world which puts its faith in the rational. The grid casts a distended moonshadow of itself, looking like the barred door of a prison cell. The shadows of the stones are a more ambiguous, seemingly divorced from the forms which cast them. Their oval and rounded shapes are suggestive of cave entrances into the subterraenean world.

Circle of Monoliths - Paul Nash
The Circle of Monoliths (1938), in Leeds removes the neutral strip of the shore, the interzone dividing land and sea, and has the ocean waves surge across megalithic fields. The two landscapes of dream border each other with no clearly defined boundary. The colours suggest a blurred inversion, the field a greyish oceanic blue and the sea the green of pasture land. The hedgerows continue through the waters in a wedge of narrowing perspective towards the horizon, as if marking out a safe road, a means of magically navigating both media. This pathway ends with a sloping shaft of light, which has the solidity of a thick suspension cable, or an escalator leading to the heavens, as in some posters for A Matter of Life and Death. To the right of the path, what appears to be an inverted tornado draws the water upward in a conical funnel rising from concentric ripples. It resembles an exaggerated earthworks, a melange of Badbury Rings, Old Sarum and a remoulded Silbury Hill. The megaliths in the foreground, emerging from a twilight field of pale china clay blue, are coloured with what looks like painted designs, emphasising contours, hollows and chiselled facets. The large stone in the centre foreground, shaped like a giant molar, is decorated with two circles shaded with red and yellow, black and white, which lends them a spherical aspect; planetary orbs, perhaps, or twinned sun and moon. The three smaller stones stand within red ovals of shadow, as if each had a protective moat of sacrificial blood, or as if they themselves were bleeding at the roots. This red colouration is echoed in the vine which coils around the hedgerow tree like an exposed network of veins. There are significant correspondences between the stones and elements of the landscape, which points to one being an expression of the other. The stone on the far right is analogous to the white cliffs on the upper left of the frame, looking as if it could have been extracted from one of its eroded cavities. The stone to its left partially mimics the form of the splintered tree trunk directly below. The stone on the left of the picture acts as a gnomon, casting a scalpel-edged blade of shadow which pierces the green heart of shadow beside the foregrounded stone – a pool of water, perhaps, if this greenness corresponds with that of the sea.

Landscape of the Moon’s First Quarter (1943) in Birmingham is one of a series of majestic works which Nash painted towards the end of his life, when chronic illness in the form of a chronic and ever-worsening asthma made him aware that he didn’t have much time left. He returned to the landscape around the Wittenham Clumps in Oxfordshire. He had first discovered the Clumps in 1911, and described the surroundings as ‘full of strange enchantment…a beautiful legendary country haunted by old gods long forgotten’. He depicted the twinned stands of beeches crowning chalk hill mounds from a number of perspectives, and with varying seasonal and meteorological atmospheres. He tried to express the spirit of this place which had affected him so deeply in his youth, and now did so again in his declining autumn, in all its myriad and mercurial aspects. In doing so, he made of it a landscape suffused with his own personal mythology. Through this intense connection with the Clumps and their surrounds, his sacralising of the local topography, he would leave some part of himself behind, the imprint of a concentrated act of sustained vision.

Landscape of the Moon's First Quarter - Paul Nash
In Landscape of the Moon’s First Quarter, the Clumps are a background detail, reduced to a hazy outline in the upper right of the frame. They are fused into one form here, the trees irregular, slate-grey bubbles, like timeworn boulders or rain-swollen clouds. Their fused form is reflected in a more individuated manner in the small stand of trees which lies directly below in the foreground of the picture. Pink-tinged evening clouds amass behind to form a mountainous range, the highest peak almost touching the lower cusp of the half moon, which looks as if it were a drifting puff of smoke belched out from a volcanic interior. In the foreground of the picture, a stretch of ground, bleached yellow by what we can assume to be the final rays of the setting sun, resembles an expanse of sandy beach. Two spheres of unequal size balance on another plane which forms a border on which the composition as a whole rests – a stone path or low wall in front of a country house, maybe (Nash was a frequent visitor at Boar’s Hill, a friend’s house near the Wittenham Clumps). These spheres, moss-fuzzed stone ornaments or immaculately sculpted shrubberies, are earthbound echoes of the moon hanging high above them near the upper border of the frame. They seem to be going through their own phases, with penumbral quadrants and curved terminator lines dividing light from dark. Sources of light are ambiguous, cast shadows suggesting the simultaneous effect of both sunlight from the left and moonlight from above.

In between the strand at the bottom of the frame and the cloud mountains at the top are expanses of trees; some areas of wild woodland, and some cultivated and ordered. To the left is a line of poplars, their trunks proceeding in regularly spaced, evenly upright lines. They form a fence-like barrier marking the limits of the more chaotic zone to its right. The unbroken mass of foliage, with rounded base curving up to tapered tip, looks solid and heavy, too weighty for the short stick-like boles upon which it rests. To the right of these tightly wrapped speciments is a tree whose wavering, curvilinear branches are exposed, skeletal and vulnerable. What foliage it has is tinged a peachy pink, and blends with the massing of clouds above and beyond. Rooted in bushes below, it connects earth with sky, and the ordered human plantation with the less evident, unmarshalled order of the forest. This wild area has an insubstantial appearance, its billowing layers, painted in autumnal russets and browns, like blooming cumulus clouds, or a roiling, muddy torrent. If we were to hold to the latter image, the Wittenham Clumps would rise like a local variant of the Isle of Avalon, Somewhere amongst this chaotic surface, ot the right of a tree which looks like an erect black glove, floats another luminous moon in half-shadowed phase. The black glove tree and another upright conifer in front of the billowing, roiling forest, look like dirty plumes of smoke, the result of some solemn pyre. Perhaps they are Cyprus trees, traditionally associated with death and the afterlife. White clouds of smoke blow out from the palm-edge of the black glove, two owls flying before its expanding front. Beneath this cloud is a black void, and to its right a dark archway leading into the woods, one of the dark-mouthed entryways leading into the heart of the landscape which are a feature of Nash’s late Wittenham Clumps pictures. Maybe it’s even an entrance to a subterraenean passage which leads to a resting place beneath the barrow mounds of the Clumps themselves.

Flowers in a Window - Winifred Nicholson
Winifred Nicholson’s Flowers at a Window (1939) in Birmingham is one of her paintings of thresholds, flowers placed at the interface between interior and exterior spaces. A winding, bluish-grey road joins with the bluish-grey of the window frame, making a direct connection between these two spaces. A dark arch in the distant blue hills resembles a cave mouth, hinting at a further threshold through which the mysteries of the landscape can be penetrated. The borders of the window frame the landscape, making it a picture within a picture, and giving it a slightly numinous quality – a world beyond. The terracotta of the bowl, the chocolate brown of the soil and the pale, tentative green of the bulb shoots stand out clearly and vividly against the subdued cream of the window ledge and the sandy brown of the hills beyond. The bare, outreaching branches of the trees and the barrenness of the hillsides indicate that winter prevails outside, but the new-blooming flowers within, set against this dead landscape, give promise of imminent spring.

Composition - John Selby Bigge
In John Selby Bigge’s Composition (1940) in Leeds, two cabbage leaves and a scallop shell rest on a shore, hugely oversized specimens all. A lacy spume of wave-edge foam arches into the bottom of the frame, cradling a speckled scatter of pebbles. The endless plain of sandy beach beyond, stretching to the far horizon, is where the sea should be. Some inversion has taken place, subconscious exposed and conscious mind concealed. The hard, jagged edges of the scallop’s exoskeletal ribs seem to have caught the soft cumulus of cloud drifting by above, and also create a trompe l’oeil tear in the vegetal leaf they overshadow.

Black Pyramids - John Armstrong
John Armstrong’s Phoenix (1938) in Leeds, erects a classical domed apse, starkly white and unadorned, which towers above the ruined façade of a 20th century house. Its monumentality and smooth perfection contrast strikingly with the jagged edges of exposed brick along the half-demolished outer wall of the house, and the scarred and torn surfaces of coloured wallpaper in what was once the inside wall. The apse seems to be an attempt to memorialise this wounded building, to make of it something permanent and sacred, a representation of the ruins and rubble from which it rises. It brings to mind Mervyn Peake’s blitz poem London, 1941, beginning with the words ‘half rubble, half pain’. Armstong’s Black Pyramids (1942) in Manchester brings together the solid forms of black pyramids and rectangular blocks in wooden colours, their arrangement suggestive of some highly regular desert megalopolis. A swarm of light, sandy cubes clusters in the shape of a sharp pointed (but pointless) exclamation mark, with a ballooning shadow extruding from its spinning needle base. The sky is textured like beaten bronze. The whole breathes a mysterious, alien air, with something portentous and Lovecraftian about it. His Lapping Waters (1944) in Birmingham is painted like a mosaic, in a style which is a kind of squared off version of pointillism. It gives the impression of something which belongs on a wall in some sacred space rather than on a canvas stretched out within a frame. Something which is pretending to be what it is not, in itself a rather surrealist gesture. The background sky looks like small panels of beaten copper - The sea appears frozen into whipped up pyramidally pointed waves, like magnetised metallic pellets piled up and carefully shaped, and from this gelid surface emerge three ossified claws, like the appendages (one extra to form a sharp-ended tripod) of some enormous mutant crab (shades of Guy N.Smith). The three claws balance some spherical form, its rilled surface suggestive either of a metallic ball or a microscopic form of intricately repetitive patterning – some sort of egg, perhaps. The tips of the claws have penetrated its surface, so that it is pinioned in its flight, its interior exposed to further probing. It’s a picture full of implied violence, rendered ritualistic by the static mosaic form.

Requiescat - Edward Wadsworth
The setting of Edward Wadsworth’s Requiescat (1940) in Leeds is a stony shore whose pebbles have the soft roundedness and pink and peppermint colouration of jelly beans. The cliffs in the background, with their turf fuzz and sheared white faces, look like the scrunched remains of granny smith apples. Their upward sloping aspect gives them the appearance of runways, launching suicidal vessels either into the pink sunset sky or the turquoise sea. The worn wrecks of ships grounded on the beach are bristled with exposed nails. They resemble rib cages, cracked open and splayed apart. The reds and the grey blues (which echo the colour of the ocean) suggest the remnants of a body which has rotted or been eroded away, traces of blood, sinew and muscle. A battered and warped teapot in the bottom right corner adds a poignant memory of domesticity, its deformed shape and salt-abraded surface rendering it an ahistorical artefact, lost in time as well as space. Wadsworth’s Composition on a Red Ground (1931), also in Leeds, shows that he felt the pull of both surrealism and abstraction. The abstract arrangement of forms here looks like a lost design from the Festival of Britain, or an anticipation of fifties graphic style. The elaborate frills and folds suggest cloth or paper, with some fanning out from what appears to be a blue crystalline form. The black shapes, bordered in white, resemble scrolls and have a mourning aspect, contrasting with the jauntiness of the frilled forms. All of these are set against a deep red background, suggesting a certain interiority, the screen of closed eyelids which absorb projections from the dreaming mind.

Polynesian Fantasy - Merlin Oliver Evans
Merlin Oliver Evans’ Polynesian Fantasy (1938) in Leeds is like an illustration from a textbook on alien biology. Odd chitinous forms are suggestive of insect life, with seedlike eggs or wormy larvae pointing to origins and early stages of mature forms. The tightly bound striations of raw meat on the figures on the right and left sides of the frame also resemble exposed musculature, specimens stripped down to reveal their mechanical workings. These are both very aggressive looking creatures, the one on the left having a head like a beaked axe designed for ripping and tearing, the one on the right topped with an elongated, protuberant cranium uncannily resembling HR Giger’s designs for the horrific creatures of the Alien films. Other forms resemble armoured pupae, whirring locusts or strange insect/bird hybrids, the bluish-grey object in the centre a semi-organic structure with hooved base stand. What looks like an egg lying on its table surface points to a certain sacral aspect, with the two meat-insects approaching from either side to pay obeisance. Or perhaps, given their erect, barbed and thorned penises, to pierce and impregnate the egg. This crudely vicious imagery points to a strain of aggressive sexuality which underlies a good deal of surrealist art. It’s one aspect which comes to the fore when the subconscious is cracked open, its contents spilled out and rearranged.

Landscape of the Grail - Cecil Collins
Cecil Collins’ Landscape of the Grail (1934) in Leeds owes more to a visionary tradition in British art, running from Blake through Samuel Palmer and, yes, Stanley Spencer. Collins created his own mythography, which drew on surrealism but was equally influenced by sacred art and notions of archetypal symbolism. Here, the sacred fire is contained within a stylised outcrop of volcanic rock, which emerges from the surrounding night. The dark blue and black is backdrop is imprinted with double lined square and diagonal grids, which gives it a quilted appearance. A comet flames through this quilted night, its arcing flight traced with a faint milky trail. It’s red eye in the palm of a pink starfish form hints at some nuclear form, making a connection between macro and microcosmic scales in the universe. The candle flame within the rock is contained within a red-veined leaf aura, like protectively cupped hands. The molten yellow light which it radiates flows through fissures in the rock, flowing downwards like a magma stream seen from a safely distant viewpoint. Two pinwheel flowers emerge from the slate-grey slopes. One blazes like a star, its central stigma pulsing out radial spokes of white light. The other bleeds light from its petals in ribboning cascades. They seem to feed on and grow directly from these molten streams running off from the burning heart of the grotto.

Night Work is About to Commence - Emmy Bridgwater
Emmy Bridgwater was one of a small number of female British surrealists (another being her friend Edith Rimmington), and was based in Birmingham, a central member of the Birmingham Surrealists group in the mid-century. Naturally enough, then, Night Work is About to Commence (1940-43) is to be found in Birmingham. It’s a very strange and weirdly absorbing painting. A long, shallow bathtub is sitting or perhaps gliding down a corridor lit with a buttery light. The fact that its leading curve (its prow) is clipped off by the edge of the frame hints at a slow movement across the sloping diagonal plane of the composition. It is stuffed with all manner of folded up deck chairs, screens, racks and frames, all seemingly connected in a jumbled assemblage. A pole with a serrated attachment of four jagged diamond shapes (mirrors?) joins the two distinct jumble piles (with fore and aft deck chair sails), one end having smashed through a frame. They hint at some mysterious machinery, the striped cloth of the deck chairs billowing out like Viking sails in a mysterious interior breeze. A crow or raven perches on a towel draped over the edge of the bath, staring down with a beady grey eye at what might be a bath sponge, which appears to be emitting a low level bioluminescent glamour. On the bottom left, the edge of some brown wooden box or stool intrudes, its squared off right angle contrasting with the curved lip of the bath.

Press for Making Shells - Graham Sutherland
In Graham Sutherland’s Press for Making Shells (1941) in Manchester, the machinery is given a monstrous life of its own. The shadows in the recessed panel of its rectangular ‘head’ looks like a hungry, gaping maw, whilst the bell-like boiler on top is a cranium in which the mechanistic impulses which drive it clatter away. The belching steam issuing from its obscure recesses have an almost solid, semi-organic appearance, manipulating appendages with stubby, grasping digits – Robbie the Robot arms. The flames beneath the stomping rods of the legs are very Blakean, stylised and resembling savage petals or sharply tapering butterfly wings. They tint the surrounding mouldering green, with a rosy blush. The sickly, institutional green infects the two figures in the bottom left of the frame, who are reduced to de-individualised outlines. They feed the flame as if tending to the altar of a terrible god.

Ruined Cottage, North Wales - John Piper
John Piper’s landscapes often have the static, solid quality of theatrical backdrops, many of which he did indeed design. Ruined Cottage, North Wales (1943) in Manchester depicts a cottage which has reverted to the landscape from which its materials were taken. The remains of the ruggedly constructed wall to the left now resemble the outcropping of a tor, with the hint of a visored, chthonic head, angular jaw jutting out and elephantine ear listening out for approaching footsteps. The far wall rises like a moorland hill, shaded in the brown of dead bracken and lit by a mysterious light. The dark sky has a tarry quality, with the texture of canvas and paint giving the impression of windblown motion and scattered rain.

Crater - Richard Murry
Richard Murry’s Crater (1941) in Manchester demonstrates the way in which war creates naturally and terribly surrealistic landscapes, as Paul Nash had demonstrated in the First World War. Here, the devastation moves from the battlefronts to the cities, with Murry depicting the aftermath of an aerial bombardment. The ashen palette, spotted with patches of lichenous yellow, and topped with a heavy strip of sky in tombstone grey, provides an expressionistic evocation of the physical and emotional wreckage. The crater in the forefront of the composition is like the swallowing mouth of some surfacing leviathan. It looks like a volcanic crater, which has wreaked havoc on the city in a latterday Pompeii eruption. Still smoking ruins in the background indicate that the destruction has come from another source, however.

Maples Demolition, Euston Road - Frank Auerbach
Leeds, Birmingham and Manchester art galleries are particularly strong on the art of the early and mid-century period. But lets take a few tentative steps into the post-war period. Frank Auerbach’s Maples Demolition, Euston Road (1960) in Leeds
Employs his usual thickly applied and roughly textured layers of oil paint. Here, he represents the exposed structure of the city with a series of straight lines scored into the surface. The prevailing yellows, along with the rust red of iron beams, gives a feeling of a scene saturated with dazzling midday light, a scorching, almost solid heat. The diagonal which bisects the frame like a slash through the canvas could be a supporting strut, the shooting path of a piece of thrown debris, or a focussed beam of searing radiance. A door is incongruously placed in the top right hand corner, two parallel diagonal lines pointing down from its marooned rectangle, marking the space where a staircase used to be. A regularly divided succession of vertically stacked rectangles in the background marks a high rise block visible beyond the shell of this old building, an indication of what will rise on this site. The seemingly abstract forms of the painting resolve themselves more clearly into the ruined interior the more you stare at it, subtle gradations in colour making themselves apparent. Features stand out with a three dimensional solidity, which is only partly due to the knobbly relief patterns created by the accretions of hardened paint.

Paper Mill, Men and Paper Bales - Prunella Clough
Prunella Clough’s Paper Mill, Men and Paper Bales (1953) in the Hepworth Wakefield shows her moving towards abstraction, with two human figures included but squeezed into the top of the composition. If the title didn’t tell us that they were surveying a field of paper bales, we’d be none the wiser, and if they were taken out of the frame we’d essentially be looking at an abstract work. The ordered geometry of the creamy white background, divided with broad strokes of grey, is disrupted in the centre right of the frame. Order is torn and shredded and thrown into a chaotic knot of fragmented shapes. Spurts and spots of bright red against the dirty whites and ochres seem to reflect the violence of this disruption.

After the Meal - Jack Smith
Jack Smith would make a more abrupt transition into a pop-influenced abstraction in the 60s, which would mark a complete break from his earlier, unambiguously figurative style. An example of the latter is to be found in After The Meal (1952) in Wakefield. It’s imbued with a strange, haunted variety of off-centre realism, which brings to mind David Lynch and Eraserhead. The domestic interior is largely drained of significant colour, leaving only the yellow of cutlery bone handles, tablecloth patterning and furniture wood. The objects on the table, remnants of the titular meal, have a more palbable presence than the baby, who gazes into space from his mother’s shoulder with empty black button eyes, and the girl in her shapeless brown dress heading for the evening streets beyond the open door. She glances back and meets the viewer’s regard with a sullen indifference, tempered with a slight quizzical tilt of the head. And with that unreadable look, we will leave her to head out into the mysteries of the 50s night, and into a future which would soon blare into brighter primary coloured pop explosions.

PART ONE is over here.

No comments: