Sickert at Tate Britain

Brighton Pierrots 1915

If Tate Britain’s exhibition achieves one thing it is to show just how avant-garde Walter Sickert really was.  Not in terms of innovative techniques like the pointillists or daringly bold colour like the Fauves – though his loose brushstrokes, technical experimentation and highlights of pure vermilion are striking – but for his whole-hearted embrace of contemporary life.  He painted from the point of view of an average person, peering over a sea of heads in a crowded music hall, watching the dawn creep into a dingy bedsit, recording the signage of Underground stations and high street shops.  Later he used photographs and newspaper clippings as the basis for his work, long before Francis Bacon or Gerhard Richter did the same.

Sickert’s brief career on the stage clearly stood him in good stead in terms of dramatic lighting and composition.  He went from performer to a sort of ‘impresario’, presenting effects to an audience on canvas – and often with himself in the main role, as the first room of self-portraits bears witness.

‘The End of the Act’ (c.1885-6, above) depicts Helen Lenoir, assistant to Richard D’Oyly Carte who produced Whistler’s ‘One O’Clock Lecture’ in 1885, slumped on a sofa post-rehearsal, a shaft of light illuminating her hands.  Sickert had been working in Whistler’s studio for three years at this point and was perfectly placed to organise this theatrical assault on the art world.  The painting of Helen not only records an intense period of devoted pupillage but at the same time marks the younger artist’s growing independence – it was larger than his previous ‘Whistlerian sketches’ and centres on a figure arranged with a sense of dramatic narrative. 

Sickert had made the acquaintance of Degas over the summer of 1885 while he was on his honeymoon in Dieppe, and discovered a mutual love of the popular stage. He eagerly took on board Degas’ advice regarding the importance of line over tone, his technique of working in smooth layers and his exhortations to use bolder colour – ‘the art of painting [is] to surround a patch of, say, Venetian red, that it appears to be a patch of vermilion.’ Sickert clearly took this literally, since this colour would become the vibrant highlight of many still-shadowy music hall scenes. A series of shop fronts shows us Sickert experimenting with the ‘alla prima’ (wet on wet) tonal approach of Whistler and with more carefully planned compositions in the style of Degas, with the paint layered in stages. ‘The Butcher’s Shop’ and ‘The Laundry’ (above right) were both painted in Dieppe in 1885 but illustrate this contrast between the loose handling and subdued palette of the former and the careful grid-like structure of the latter with its precise white highlights.

’Red Shop’ (above, c.1888) is far bolder with a vermilion shopfront that almost pulsates, like a vision; it was certainly a revelation of sorts to Sickert as he uses the colour repeatedly from this point. In most cases it is the only colour to leap out from among the shadows and reflections in paintings like ‘The PS Wings in the OP Mirror’ (below, c.1888-9), ‘Minnie Cunningham at the Old Bedford’ (1892) and ‘Gallery of the Old Bedford’ (c.1894-5).  These music hall paintings also allowed him to experiment with sweeping or precipitate perspectives and with the use of mirrors to trick the eye; in ‘The PS Wings…’ the audience and performer seem to be facing away from each other, until you notice the subtle gold frame of the mirror… 

‘Little Dot Hetherington at the Bedford Music Hall’ (below, c.1888-9) also uses tints of the favoured red to pick out the verticals of curtains and the edge of the boxes, but here the focus is the bright white dress of Little Dot caught in a beam of light – innocence personified in the dingy depths of the theatre.

When it came to portraits Sickert was a chameleon in terms of style – did he adjust his brushwork according to the character of the sitter? Or was he just trying out new techniques?  He veers from a Whistler-esque, muted, tonal approach in his portrait of Aubrey Beardsley (right,1894) and ‘Le Chale Venitien’ (1903-4), while Harold Gilman (c.1912) has almost pointillist stipples around the jawline, and in ‘Blackbird’ (c.1892) Sickert uses striated brushstrokes tending towards Van Gogh’s.

The portrait of Victor Lecourt (left, 1921-4), meanwhile, with its bright planes of colour and pattern, recalls the Nabis; as much attention is given to the interior and textiles as to the sitter – in Edouard Vuillard’s words, ‘I don’t paint portraits, I paint people in their homes’. The interior plays an equally important role in paintings like ‘The Mantlepiece’ (c.1906) which conform what would become a recognisable Camden Town Group style, more akin to genre paintings than portraits with their sense of frozen narrative.

It was a joy to see so many iterations of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice (the Tate’s below) and the church of St. Jacques in Dieppe displayed. It is natural to recall Monet’s many views of Rouen Cathedral in different light and different seasons; however, Sickert’s approach differs in being less scientific, and more an investigation of how paint can convey varied sensation and psychological connection.

Some of Sickert’s larger townscapes are brighter and more colourful  – but it is notable that he frequently chose dusk or night-time scenes where the shadows dominate, throwing dramatic silhouettes (as in ‘La Grande Duquesne’) or where gaslight creates stark contrasts as in ‘Maple Street’ (1916). There is a melancholy in the lone figure of the latter, and even more so in ‘Nuit d’Amour’ (c.1920) where the artist/viewer looks in from the dark street at scenes of warmth and merriment within the cafe. In other paintings the pure colour is found in street signs so that the graphic lettering itself becomes the focus of the composition (‘Queen’s Road Bayswater’ for instance, or ‘Easter’ in which the shop sign ‘Dawson Bros’ stands out centrally above a sea of easter bonnets in the windows). 

Sickert is notorious for his series of dimly-lit interiors with a naked female figure sprawled on an old iron bedstead which have become known as ‘The Camden Town Nudes’ or the ‘Camden Town Murder Series’.  The real life murder of Emily Dimmock in Camden Town in 1907 created a sensation in the press, and Sickert, who was already producing interior genre pieces with ambiguous narratives, jumped upon this subject (‘Nuit d’Ete’ and ‘La Hollandaise’, above and below).

He played around with pose and introduced in some a mysterious male figure (husband, client or murderer?!) and deliberately provoked the associations by giving his work allusive titles.  His flair for drama was given free rein here and he would surely be gleeful to know of the discussions still raging among art historians.  Are the images violent or just sad, full of horror or simply despair? It was interesting to read in the catalogue about expert analysis on the letters sent to the police, supposedly from Jack the Ripper, which match the paper and artists materials used by Sickert.  However, even if he did send hoax letters, it seems far-fetched to accuse him of these crimes; he just had a vivid imagination and a flair for self-promotion.

As modern culture swept forward from music halls to cinemas, Sickert followed enthusiastically in its wake; black and white press cuttings were transformed into colour on the canvas, or enlarged to enormous proportions while retaining the simplified tones and flattened perspective of monochrome photography. In ‘La Louve’ (1932, left) the actress Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies as Isabella of France is depicted full-length and dramatically lit – yet Sickert was unashamed at the borrowing of source material, even painting in the photo credit in the lower right corner!  As with his earlier music hall images, Sickert often used a single highlight of bold, pure colour – the emerald in ‘La Louve’ or the well-known vermilion on a raincoat in ‘Miss Earhart’s Arrival’ (1932) – that still looks extraordinarily fresh and daring today.

Walter Sickert was of the generation which inherited the mantle of both Impressionism and Pre-Rephaelitism and yet he formed from these enormously radical movements something quite unique – and which itself inspired many equally radical artists of the 20th century.  By including numerous examples of the latter the exhibition makes clear just how much they owed to Sickert – from Pop Art’s use of consumer culture and text to the use of photography and appropriated imagery. Even the classic genre of the Nude is, through Sickert’s demythologising of the naked body to Francis Bacon’s and Lucian Freud’s searingly honest depictions of stark humanity, continually reinvented.

Oratorio di Santa Cecilia, Bologna

We were walking down the via Zamboni, beneath Bologna’s distinctive porticos, looking for a spritz. In the piazza ahead of us students were gathering in the late afternoon sun, sitting on the warm paving. Distracted by a small sign we made a detour through a dark doorway and found ourselves in the Oratorio di Santa Cecilia, attached to the Convent of S. Giacomo Maggiore. An art class sat silently sketching in the cool vaulted space.

Five frescoes stretch along each lateral wall, representing scenes from the life of Saint Cecilia. They were commissioned by Giovanni II Bentivoglio, ‘regent’ (or tyrant) of Bologna from 1463 until he was kicked out by the pope in 1506 (portrait by Ercole de’ Roberti, c.1480).  They were painted in 1505-6, possibly in response to the recent earthquakes that devastated Bologna and the neighbouring church of S. Giacomo in 1504-5.  

Three of the top court artists of Bologna – Francesco Raibolini (Il Francia), Lorenzo Costa and Amico Aspertini – are known for certain to have worked on specific frescoes, while the attribution of other frescoes are less certain, perhaps undertaken by many hands or by minor artists.

Il Francia completed the first scene in the fresco cycle. He began as a goldsmith and took up painting in 1494 when he was already middle aged, working in collaboration with Lorenzo Costa and influenced by the latter’s style. In the ‘Marriage of Saint Cecilia’ to Valeriano he captures the moment when the ring is being placed on the bride’s finger.  The wedding party – five men on the right, five women on the left – stand under a Bolognese portico, one of the defining architectural features of the city. Beyond is a hilly landscape with a log cabin, perhaps the location of the subsequent wedding feast.  But Cecilia turns her head away – perhaps from timidity, but most likely because she is in spiritual turmoil, having already made a vow of chastity to God and is being given in marriage against her will.

Lorenzo Costa was born in Ferrara, moving to Bologna in his early twenties where he enjoyed the patronage of Bentivoglio, completing the  Bentivoglio Altarpiece in San Giacomo Maggiore (1483); like Il Francia he later moved to the Gonzaga court in Mantua. In the second scene, Costa portrays the ‘Conversion of Valeriano’ to Christianity.  Valeriano kneels in front of Pope Urbano who is seated in open countryside; between them stands an old man robed in white holding open a book from which he reads (we learn from the Life of Saint Cecilia) “One God, one faith, one baptism. Do you believe in all of this?” To which Valeriano, his gaze turned in open-mouthed awe towards the gold lettering, is said to have replied “No other exists”.

The third scene, the ‘Baptism of Valeriano’, is loosely attributed to ‘Amigo Aspertini and others’, as are the fourth, seventh and eighth. Amico Aspertini was born in Bologna and studied under Il Francia and Lorenzo Costa, among others. He travelled to Rome and Florence as a young man and was influenced by Pinturicchio and Filippino Lippi, developing an eclectic proto-Mannerist style.  He worked with the two older Bolognese artists on the Santa Cecilia frescos, later producing work for the Basilica of San Petronio, including a Pieta.

The Baptism is again set within an open countryside of green hills and distant towns – a constant backdrop that gives the cycle continuity. Valeriano kneels by a small puddle of water while Pope Urbano pours water from a bowl over his head.  Three other priests are in attendance, while two pages in contemporary dress stand behind Valeriano holding his clothes.  As in many of the scenes, there are secondary figures in the distance, here indicated by the page, possibly Cecilia with a woman and a dog. 

In the fourth scene Valeriano and Cecilia are crowned with flowers by an angel who stands between them, wings open against a lozenge of light.  Two secondary narratives take place behind this group; to the left the couple are seen with Valeriano’s brother Tiburzio who is converted to Christianity and is then seen on the right – the very small nude figure – being baptised before a crowd of people.

Aspertini has solo attribution for the fifth scene, the ‘Martyrdom of Saints Valerian and Tiburzio’, and for the sixth, depicting their Burial.  These compositions are notably busier, with less demarcation between foreground and background narrative.  Aspertini captures the grisly, dramatic moment in which the first brother has just been decapitated, blood still spurting from his neck, while the executioner swings his sword for the second blow.  A diverse crowd surrounds the spectacle, representing all the ages of man from babyhood to old age; high up in the sky two angels hover, one with the soul of the dead man, the other waiting to catch the second. 

In the Burial scene, one of the brothers is laid out on the ground surrounded by antique relics while just beyond the other is being lifted into a carved stone sarcophagus, his head held gently in place by an accompanying female figure.  To the left Saint Cecilia, in a bright red cloak, grieves, her hand covering her face.  The dark cavern of the tomb contrasts with the luminous coastal landscape to the top left.

The Trial of Saint Cecilia and her Martyrdom (seventh and eighth) are again less definitely attributed. In the former, the Roman prefect sits on the steps of a pagan altar, pointing at Cecilia, the central figure of the composition, calm and radiant.  The scene captures the moment at which he forces her to sacrifice to the gods behind him and she answers “Your power is like a bag of wind that, when pierced by a needle, will collapse” – and thus signs her death warrant. 

The Martyrdom depicts Cecilia in a cauldron-like bath of boiling water – which to her felt cool – and behind her an executioner wielding a sword with which he thrice, unsuccessfully, tried to behead her.  Balancing these tiers of figures on the right are the judges, the most important seated on a high stepped throne.

Lorenzo Costa’s ‘Alms of Saint Cecilia’ (ninth) shows the wounded Cecilia distributing all her worldly goods to the poor, accompanied by Pope Urbano. A barefooted man kneels in front of her, a women with a naked child to the other side.  Behind them on the left stand a group of gentlemen, well-dressed in the contemporary fashion; by this means the poor at Cecilia’s feet come to symbolise ‘Poverty’ in general, inviting the contemporary spectator to follow Cecilia’s benevolent example.

The tenth and final scene depicting the Burial of Saint Cecilia is by Il Francia, completing the cycle as he started it, with a well-balanced groups of figures to right and left supporting the Saint, praying and crying, as she is lowered into her tomb. Cecilia appears as if in peaceful sleep, while directly above her at the top of the painting an angel holds a little figure symbolising the Saint’s soul, which has flown up to the skies.

Saint Cecilia is today remembered as the patron saint of music, yet this connection is not presented in the fresco cycle.  Musical references first appear almost a decade later in Raphael’s ‘Saint Cecilia Altarpiece’ (right, and included in the current National Gallery exhibition) which reached Bologna in 1515 on its way to S. Giovanni in Monte and is full of instruments. The musical association may come from a passage in the ‘Passion of Saint Cecilia’ describing how, during her wedding celebrations, she sang to God in her heart to keep her immaculate; this in turn was adapted and used in antiphons and vespers in memory of Saint Cecilia.

Surrealism & Magic: Enchanted Modernity

The inspiration for this illuminating new exhibition on Surrealism at the Guggenheim in Venice was Kurt Seligmann. A Swiss artist and writer who joined the Surrealist group in Paris in the late 1920s, he was also an expert in magic and the occult.  Having emigrated to New York together with Breton, in 1948 he published ‘The Mirror of Magic’, a history of the occult in the Western world which would prove influential to many Surrealists. The focus on magic, alchemy and the occult serves to spotlight certain artists who have otherwise been overlooked – not least some incredibly talented women.

Surrealism officially began in 1924 with the publication of the Surrealist Manifesto by Andre Breton; yet the opening room of this exhibition immediately gives the lie to this idea that surrealism burst into life on an instant. One of Breton’s most cherished paintings, Giorgio de Chirico’s unusually Freudian ‘The Child’s Brain’ (1914, above left) is exhibited next to work by Max Ernst who founded the Cologne Dada group in 1919. Dada experimented with collage, a technique that thrives on the bizarre juxtapositions which underlie Surrealism – demonstrating that the essential elements of surrealist art had been percolating for over a decade.

The show really kicks off with the vibrant pairing of Leonora Carrington’s ‘Portrait of Max Ernst’ (1939, right) and Ernst’s ‘The Attirement of the Bride’ (1940, below) – exhibited together for the first time in 80 years. Brought out as a debutante in 1935, Carrington met Max Ernst in London in 1937 and though their relationship lasted only three years, and ended in dramatic circumstances with the Nazi occupation of France, it was intensely creative and productive for both artists. Ernst had already developed his alter ego – Loplop, Superior of the Birds – while Carrington had since girlhood identified with horses; here those characteristics are given magical significance.

Leonora’s portrait depicts Ernst walking through an icy landscape wearing a dark red fur/feathered coat which terminates in a fish tail, one stripy-stockinged leg protruding. Behind him is a white horse, Leonora’s alter-ego, frozen and unmoving, while another horse can is trapped within the glass lantern Ernst carries.  Initially one might suppose that Leonora felt (subconsciously) trapped in her relationship; but it has been suggested that she in fact reverses the traditional roles of artist and muse in this work, with the bird-fish hybrid Ernst ‘a mystical figure of transformation and rescue’ (Fiona Bradley).  This reading rests on a knowledge of their shared interest in alchemy, and the egg shape of the lantern; in his 1944 study ‘Psychology and Alchemy’ Jung writes: 

‘In alchemy the egg stands for the chaos apprehended by the artifex, the prima materia containing the captive world-soul. Out of the egg — symbolized by the round cooking vessel — will rise the eagle or phoenix, the liberated soul…’

We might therefore see the horse in the lantern as a Leonora liberated by the figure of Max Ernst.  Leonora rarely gave a clear interpretation of her paintings, leaving their meaning deliberately vague.  But her interest in alchemy, which became increasingly mixed up symbolically with her childhood Catholicism and the Celtic mythology of her Irish heritage, is vital to understanding the imagery she used in her work.

In ‘The Attirement of the Bride’ – in some senses a companion piece – a naked body (understood to be Leonora, Ernst’s ‘bride of the wind’) appears from an enormous red cloak, the head of which has the appearance of an owl, accompanied by a green bird-like figure, both perhaps the artist’s alter ego.  The ‘picture-within-a-picture’ behind the main figures uses the technique of decalcomania in which diluted paint is pressed between surfaces (such as canvas and glass) to create a particular effect; this was one of many techniques Ernst used which allowed images to appear by chance, or as Breton put it, by ‘pure psychic automatism’.

There is an example of grattage – scraping away layers of paint on canvas pressed against a textured surface – in the following gallery. ‘Europe After The Rain II’ (1940-42), was a response to the bewildering and traumatic events of these years which saw Ernst arrested and imprisoned twice before managing to flee to America with the help of Peggy Guggenheim.  The paint effects describe a desecrated landscape, primordial and threatening, with two figures cast adrift within it.  The scouring of the paint surface seems an appropriate method to embody the violent transformation of the world and, by association, the artist himself.  The female figure suggests that Leonora was often in his mind; if the couple had not been split apart by war, would it have lasted? They met again in Lisbon on the eve of their escape to America, and again in New York, but did not reunite.  

There was always an element of Surrealism which despite encouraging women artists tended to relegate them to the role of ‘femme-enfant’ or muse, both erotic and childlike. One of the most exciting parts of this exhibition is devoted to the women artists who eschewed this role – indeed actively turned this power balance on its head.

Leonor Fini, born in Argentina and brought up in Trieste, kept her distance from the Surrealists in Paris as she was unwilling to submit to Breton’s authority.  She had been a lover of Ernst and remained a friend, staying at their French farmhouse, Les Alliberts, prior to the war and becoming close to Leonora too.  Whitney Chadwick, in her study of the ‘two Leonors’, writes that her painting 

‘suggests ritualised and erotic dream-worlds in which women wield power over ancient ceremonies and mysterious cults of the feminine … The work resonates with intimations of domesticity, femininity and community’

‘The Shepherdess of the Sphinxes’ (1941) shows an almost comic-book superwoman figure with bouffant hair and a shepherd’s crook, keeping a herd of potentially savage woman-beasts at bay.  Sphinxes have an ambiguous symbolism, both matriarchal and destructive; by associating herself with the sphinx (for there is an acknowledged element of self-portraiture) Fini, Chadwick asserts, ‘exercises all the lost female powers to return them to the contemporary woman’. This feminist principle would become increasingly important in Leonora’s work too.

Dorothea Tanning met Max Ernst in New York in 1942, where many artistic refugees from Nazi-occupied France had settled, and they remained together until his death in 1976 (though he was married to Peggy Guggenheim from 1942 to 1946). She would say in retrospect: 

I never felt the need to cultivate my unconscious.  Then or now.  It is there.  Alchemically fused with my conscious self, assuring my indivuation.  They mesh and work together to make of me whatever it is that I am.’ 

Here she is represented by ‘The Magic Flower Game’ (1941, left), a powerful yet disturbing image of a waif-like girl – in direct contrast to Fini’s adjacent erotic shepherdess – which Ernst might well have seen in her studio when he went to look for paintings to exhibit at Peggy’s New York gallery. The girl, part-clothed in flowers, holds a ball of wool that she seems to be spinning from a sunflower at her feet; is she being consumed by nature or is she in fact weaving her own destiny? Tanning spoke of the sunflower as ‘a symbol of all the things that youth has to face and to deal with’, a more menacing interpretation that is sustained by the hovering presence of the shadow and the high encircling walls.

Meanwhile, Leonora Carrington emigrated from New York to Mexico where she met many emigre artists and writers, including Remedios Varo, Kati Horna and ‘Chiki’ Weisz, a photojournalist from Hungary whom she married (right, on their wedding day).  Domesticity and motherhood, rather than proving an obstacle to creativity, seemed to liberate the potential of the three friends as they used their domestic lives as raw material.  Food, in particular, takes a central role; Remedios and Leonora loved cooking surrealist inspired meals and buying unusual ingredients from the Mexican markets where herbs for witchcraft were sold.  Janet Kaplan notes that ‘using cooking as a metaphor for hermetic pursuits they established an association between women’s traditional roles and magical acts of transformation’. The association can be extended from cooking and magic to art production, a relationship that Whitney Chadwick see as central to Leonora’s work:

‘The prominent place given to the cauldron in Celtic myth and grail legend had long fascinated Carrington as had alchemical descriptions of the gentle cooking of substances placed in egg-shaped vessels.  She has related alchemical processes to those of both painting and cooking, carefully selecting a metaphor that unites the traditional woman’s occupation as nourisher of the species with that of the magical transformation of form and colour that takes place in the artist’s creative process, nourishing the spirit.’

This metaphor is perfectly captured in ‘Grandmother Moorhead’s Aromatic Kitchen’ (1975). Thew title acknowledges the influence of Leonora’s Irish heritage; yet the culinary vessels and foodstuffs are clearly Mexican, mixing in her adopted nationality.  A goose appears as if conjured by the three hooded figures within a magic circle, a ‘manifestation of the Celtic mother-goddess’ but also like the Mother Goose of fairy tales, while behind it a goat-like creature with a  broom symbolises the hearth and witchcraft. It is the culmination of decades of exploration of this combination of the domestic and the magical, as Susan Aberth writes, 

In her life-long battle against traditional female roles she adroitly transformed the trappings of domesticity, and thus the bondage they symbolised to her, into a multifaceted portrayal of feminine occultism. At the centre of this heretical attack was the symbol of the table – as altar, as alchemical lab, as the locus of the witch’s Sabbath, and as a doorway into the alternate worlds lying dangerously in wait beneath patriarchy’.

It is interesting to note that Leonora was using egg tempera during this period, which gave her work a very physical link to the Renaissance painters she admired (also seen in the multi-narrative composition ‘The Pleasures of Dagobert’) as well as to an alchemical sense of transforming foodstuff into a magical creation on the canvas. 

Irish Celtic mythology infuses Leonora’s ‘The Chair (Daghda Tuatha de Danaan)’ (1955); the subtitle references the father-god (Daghda), descended from the universal mother goddess (Tuatha de Danaan) and skilled in Druid magic. The sun was particularly venerated as a bringer of life and fertility and here sits atop a throne-like chair covered in symbolic imagery; on an adjacent table a white egg has been conjured upon which grows a white rose, contrasting with the blood red walls of the room. The picture is full of alchemical references: the opposing white and red of male and female together with the egg, the cooking vessel, out of which will rise the liberated soul.  Leonora described Robert Graves’s ‘The White Goddess’ (1948), a study of the archaic ‘goddess’ religions as ‘the greatest revelation of my life’ – perhaps here the white egg might represent the future of lost matriarchal cultures.

Remedios Varo was born in Catalonia to a hydraulic engineer whose technical drawings she would copy out, and a linear precision continued to define her work.  Like Leonora, her art is imbued with feminine strength of will – one that took her from Republican Catalonia to Surrealist Paris, arrest and subsequent flight to Mexico with her partner, the poet Benjamin Peret, when France was occupied by the Nazis. Varo’s figures, like Leonora’s, are often androgynous, often in the process of transformation, challenging gender and the expectations that adhere to it. Yet Varo’s figures are more often isolated – for instance the solitary alchemist feeding the moon in ‘Celestial Pablum’ (1958, above). The woman is depicted at the centre of the universe, nourishing it, keeping it going – but this supernatural undertaking is shown as a mechanical task: an elaborate grinder contraption is clamped to the table, processing the stars which are spoon-fed to the moon in a bird-cage as if to a baby.

I’ve so far failed to mention most of the men in this exhibition.  At the start of the exhibition are some designs for tarot cards, produced in Marseilles in 1940, where a group of Surrealist artists including Breton, Ernst, Lam, Oscar Dominguez, Victor Brauner, Andre Masson and others were waiting to escape Nazi-occupied France.  This undertaking not only exemplifies the widespread interest in the occult but also the group spirit of the Surrealist movement. 

Victor Brauner’s ‘The Surrealist’ (1947) uses tarot imagery in a self-portrait modelled on the image of the ‘Juggler’ with large hat and medieval costume, standing before a table laid with goblet, coins and knife; the symbolism is appropriate, for the Juggler controls his own future just as the Surrealist dictates his own creativity.

There are also some interesting paintings by men that reject the ‘femme-enfant’ objectification of the female body. Magritte’s ‘Black Magic’ (1945) is modelled by the artist’s wife, Georgette Berger, whose head and upper torso are blue as the sky and sea blending into the horizon beyond, while her lower half remains earthly and flesh-coloured, tethered to the solidity of the rock by her right hand. She has the beauty and proportion of a classical sculpture – an object for the spectator’s gaze – yet with her head literally ‘in the clouds’ Magritte seems to comment on the unknowability of a woman’s thoughts; of the terrestrial part he wrote that ‘the hard existence of the stone, well-defined…and the mental and physical system of a human being are not unconnected.’

For me, the women – both painted and depicted – really stole the show.

Raphael

No wonder I spotted only one lone Raphael painting in the Uffizi – most of his best (portable) work is currently in London at the National Gallery’s sumptuous exhibition.

Trying to sum up Raphael’s short but spectacularly productive career in seven rooms is not an easy task, but while paintings – madonnas in particular – make up a large part of the show, the curators have achieved an impressive balance, with areas dedicated to architecture, design and archaeology, printmaking and bronze casting.  The scale of his larger works, notably in the Vatican stanze, is also made apparent by means of a facsimile of The School of Athens covering an entire wall, accompanied by some of the preliminary drawings.  A little further on, one of the Sistine tapestries, which once lined the walls below Michelangelo’s infamous frescoes, stretches to the gallery ceiling.

The early works are exquisite, luminous – painted in oil on poplar wood they have a precision and detail closer to the Northern artists such as Van Eyck, while the creatures being vanquished by Saint Michael (c.1505, above) would make Hieronymus Bosch proud. The small scale paintings, especially the horizontal compositions of the predella panels (such as ‘The Procession to Calvary’, c.1504-5, top), have the lively narrative element and the jewel-like colour of fairy-tales. But Raphael’s mastery of anatomy is already apparent, even if the faces are still perfect ovals with little hint of strong emotion –  and scaled up to a full-size altarpiece in the ‘Mond Crucifixion’ (1502-3), his exceptional ability is clear, despite being barely out of his teens.

The Madonna and Child paintings are all breathtakingly beautiful, but what is so interesting about seeing them gathered here together is the way one can trace Raphael’s development, as he experiments with composition, expression, backdrops and lighting techniques.  He moved from his home town of Urbino to Florence and then to Rome to work for the Pope, and his changing style reflects the new influences that each city offered him. 

One of the earlier compositions, ‘The Madonna of the Pinks’ (c.1506-7, above top), is thought to have been inspired by Leonardo’s early work of around 15 years before, the ‘Benois Madonna’.  It shows a tender connection between mother and child as they grasp the delicate stems of flowers, situated in a plain dark interior with a naturalistic landscape glimpsed through the window. It is a more intimate scene than the ‘Ansidei Madonna’ (1505), which was created as an altarpiece with the Virgin and Child enthroned, their contemplative gaze directed at the book open on her knee. The ‘Tempi Madonna’ (1507-8, above) is perhaps the most loving depiction of the bond between mother and child, their cheeks pressed together, her hands gently supporting the soft bare skin.  

Time in Florence also introduced Raphael to the circular format of the ‘tondo’ which he naturally strove to master. An early attempt, ‘The Terranuova Madonna’ (1505-6, above) sees him employ a horizontal parapet to divide the space between the figures and the landscape beyond, resulting in the flanking infant saints being partly cropped, the circular frame arbitrary. ‘The Alba Madonna’ of c.1509-11 (below), considered by the curators ‘the culmination of Raphael’s exploration of the tondo’s circular form, takes a very different approach, freeing the composition from centralised and geometrical constraints; it is remarkable in its perfect balance despite the fact that the focal point – where Jesus grasps the small wooden cross of Saint John – is shifted heavily to the left, piercing a strong diagonal movement that follows the Madonna’s gaze downward. The only features weighting the right hand side are the Madonna’s left arm leaning on a shadowy wedge of rock.  But the positioning of the Madonna’s body lends a circularity to the group that is all the more beautiful for being so asymmetrical.  Raphael pays homage to Botticelli’s mastery of the form, while taking it a step further into studied naturalism.

In contrast to the limpid blue skies and ethereal misty landscapes of many of these earlier paintings, Raphael’s ‘The Madonna of the Rose’ (1516-17) has a completely obscured background from which the figure group appears dramatically spotlight.  This effect was to prove hugely influential throughout the 16th Century – and is one of the most distinctive features of the Baroque master Caravaggio.

‘The Madonna of Divine Love’ (1516, above) combines all the successful techniques Raphael had learnt. The figure group is similar to the ‘Alba’ tondo, with the addition of Saint Anne, whose loving careworn face, arm extended as if to protect the baby Jesus from his fate, is deeply affecting; the protagonists are spotlight within a penumbrous interior – yet one that opens out onto a twilit sky, the shadowy figure of Joseph adding another layer of narrative depth to the painting.

Accompanying the finished works in almost every room are drawings which have the effect not only of illustrating the metamorphosis of the work but give a visceral sense of the artist himself – they pulsate with a restless imagination, rapid strokes exploring and reworking gestures and foreshortening (‘Study for Diogenes’ for the ‘School of Athens’, c.1508-10, above).

Amidst the variety of his output – the bronze roundels for Agostino Chigi, designs for tapestries, engravings, architecture – it is easy to forget Raphael’s extreme youth (he died aged only 37 in 1520).  Two self-portraits (above) bring home his extraordinary precocity, one showing a fresh-faced youth of 23, another, completed shortly before his death in 1519-20, depicting the bearded artist standing behind his pupil Giulio Romano, paternal hand on shoulder.

The featureless backgrounds and very muted colour scheme ensure a psychological connection, an approach repeated in the portraits of friends such as Bindo Altoviti (c.1516-18, left), turning to catch our gaze over his shoulder, and Baldassare Castiglione (1519, below) who surveys us calmly with his piercing blue eyes. They also focus the attention on the luxurious texture of the fabrics – such as the rumpled gold-trimmed silk-satin sleeve of ‘La Donna Velata’.  So against such restraint it is a shock to turn to ‘La Fornarina’, glaringly nude against a lush jungle of plants that almost entirely obscure the night sky.

I couldn’t help wondering if ‘La Donna Velata’ and La Fornarina, facing each other across the gallery with enigmatic smiles to their lips, might be one and the same woman – and indeed on further reading it seems many have wondered the same. The model is thought to be Margarita Luti, the daughter of a baker to whom Raphael may have been secretly betrothed, x-rays having revealed a ruby ring on her left hand, covered up upon his untimely death.

Pancakes and Pirate Carrots

It has been drizzling incessantly this week. Making a hasty return from school, I noticed with surprise that the daffodils are out already. The dingy weather and the brightness of the blooms epitomised early March, a month of contrasts. Inside, faces pressed to a window running with raindrops, four velvety scarlet amaryllis flowers have trumpeted out from the apex of their sturdy stem. A stunted hyacinth, remnant of last year, pours out scent from the centre of the table.

I have been reminded of the paintings of Eric Ravilious several times recently – perhaps because we live beneath the Westbury White Horse which he famously depicted. Is there anyone who has better captured the British weather? The soft relentlessness of the rain. The subtleties of grey within the clouds. The subdued greens of an ancient sculpted landscape. Romantic in a quiet way, no histrionics; innately British.

Ravilious stayed with the conoisseur and collector Sir Geoffrey Fry at Oare House in Wiltshire in the early 1930s, having been commissioned to produce three painted panels; while there he explored the Wiltshire downs, as well as the gardens and greenhouses at Oare. Later, in 1939 – just before receiving a letter from the War Artists’ Advisory Committee – Ravilious travelled through Wiltshire and Dorset drawing chalk figures for Puffin Picturebooks: ‘the Weymouth George III, the Cerne Giant, the horse at Westbury and the other white horse at Uffington’ he wrote to a friend. But then the war took over.

This quiet rain is in many ways a relief after the recent storm. Storms are anxious-making. Every whistle of a gust squeezing through a crevice, every tapping of a branch against the window or rattle of a loose sash pane distracts my attention like a fitful baby. Whatever I am doing I must get up again and go to the window, watch intently for straining branches or loosened tiles. I cannot bring myself to call storms by their invented names; it demeans them.  Maybe this is the purpose of it, to reduce mass panic by humanising the chaotic force. But I would rather acknowledge the overwhelming power of nature, cancel our plans again and wait. The storm in the skies eerily echoed the distant news filtering through on the unreliable internet; and now the rain continues to fall.

Despite being confined inside (or perhaps because of all this weather-induced isolation), I have struggled to keep up with events. Pancake day almost passed us by (and the hasty production of drop scones for tea did not impress anyone); Ash Wednesday, late though it is this year, seemed to have come early; and at 8.30am on World Book Day I remembered that we were supposed to be creating ‘a character from your favourite book’ out of a vegetable. I swiftly draw an eye patch on a carrot; the origami tricorn was a dismal failure, but covered the carrot’s mouldy head. It was something, and off we went to join the throng of literary vegetables in the damp mist of Thursday.

Friday 11th February, Wiltshire

Finally we made it. On the last day of the week Archibald managed to join his line of classmates on the frosty playground just before the bell rang.  Fifth time lucky.  I left him, tartan scarf dragging and knitted tea-cosy hat with its pompom shedding scraps of bright red wool in an incongruously festive trail around a sullen little face.

The whippet, however, once roused from her post-breakfast nap, was full of the joys of spring. She chose a patch of bergenias on the edge the lane for her first stop. The sky was bright, cold and clear, and the verges seemed to be full of interesting smells.  The birds seem invigorated too – there has been noticeably more choral work in the mornings and quite a busy promenade along the beams of the de-glassed glasshouse and the bare trunks of the vine.  The newly pruned fruit trees below the village look neat as a pin and ready to burst forth.

A curious robin came to watch me as I pruned the hydrangea down to the just-burgeoning lower buds, last summer’s petals falling like confetti. Already beneath my feet fat green shoots were pushing up through the mulch; I’ve forgotten whether they are tulips or hyacinths, but this mystery only fuels the anticipation.  Something has tried to dig up the bulbs from a large pot by the door – last year’s tulips, which I found sprouting in a box last autumn.  Squirrels or children…? I’ve been making regular tours of the hellebores I planted out last year, waiting for a show, but it has so far been muted – one or two slightly nibbled flowers.  Perhaps they need more time to settle in.  Or was I supposed to remove all last year’s leaves? This seemed a bit extreme when there is so little greenery left in the garden.  

Inspired by all the pictures of frosted topiary and other exhortations to create structure in one’s garden I attempted to ‘shape’ a small holm oak that had seeded itself some years ago, aiming for a lollipop effect.  I am fairly pleased with the result although only time will tell whether it thrives after its haircut.  Likewise my efforts at training the espalier apples and pears along the wall behind the vegetable patch; since they were first planted and tied in professionally none of the subsequent twigs seems to want to grow in the direction I desire. At least I have gained – I hope – a head start on the aphids that decimated them last summer by applying a winter wash.

And then there are the snowdrops.  Every garden magazine and Sunday supplement article is full of them, because to be fair there are only limited plants to rave about in February.  We have a small crowd here – just the bog-standard Galanthus nivalis as far as I know – huddled under a hazel tree just to the left of the driveway.  I made a half-hearted attempt to split a few clumps last year, hoping to encourage them to spread outwards under the canopy of the hazel; being the first time I had attempted this I thought it would be foolish to spend too much time on it if my efforts were simply to kill off the little chaps rather than multiply them. So I am delighted that they appear to have survived – there are numerous lonely singletons nodding their pretty white heads.  I can understand why people become devoted galanthophiles.  Snowdrops are so delicate, elegant and pure in their restrained palette of green and white – and their appearance amongst the frost and the brown skeletons of winter cannot fail to bring joy.  However, I am determined to resist this new potential obsession, as the children would surely stamp on the most special of cultivars and I don’t need any more garden-related distress (the whippet’s violent pursuit of squirrels has been quite emotionally draining).  But if I come across a Galanthus ‘Grumpy’ I might be tempted – I think Archibald would appreciate it.

William Foyle: Landscapes

Scotland I

Scotland II

‘Landscapes’ – eleven large scale canvases saturated with colour and memory – is the concise and quietly imposing result of around four years of travel and painting. Verging on the abstract, these are landscapes that capture the essence of a place, its atmosphere and the emotions it provokes.

Rape field Slovakia

Rapeseed Field Slovakia 

There is a significance, then, in the titles: the abstract becomes landscape for the uninformed viewer by this means, and this adds immeasurably to the experience of looking.  Details can be glimpsed and the tonal shifts and subtleties gain meaning.  Yet these are as much dreamscapes as real landscapes; the blurring of forms – as if seen through a smeared window, a heat haze or half-closed eyelids – enables the viewer to see what they wish to see, to conjure their own landscape from an emotional subconscious.

India I

India I

The starting point for many of these images was a photo snapped through the window of a train, speeding through Eastern Europe or India.  The haziness of detail thus also hints at the notion of speed, a momentary impression on the retina (questioning the very way we see things and piece together a landscape in our minds) – the skill of the artist lies in rendering such intangible notions in a solid, static, timeless medium.

Edges play an important role: the edge of the train window or the aperture of the camera frame the landscape, echoing the edges of our vision.  Correspondingly, in many of the paintings the pigment deepens towards the edge of the canvas – to a deep Prussian blue in Scotland II.  In this image, and in others such as Heatwave, there is an inner ‘frame’ too that gives an increased sense of depth and recession.

Heatwave

Heatwave

Heatwave has the pulsating depth of pigment of Rothko or Kapoor; yet as one stares there is the sense of looking at a very bright light from behind the eyelids, the intensity of the blackness shifting, a throb of luminosity at the centre.  In Scotland II a pure clear light is just breaking though chinks in the heavy cloud, or through a veil of rain.  Scotland III, however, seems to stand apart; its overt, slashing brushstrokes and drips seem harsh in comparison to the softer marks of other images that almost melt into the canvas, melding colour and light.

Scotland III

Scotland III

The collection of paintings that form ‘Landscapes’ are less dark in subject matter than Foyle’s previous exhibition, which touched on the holocaust and the fragility of the human form.  However, themes of history, identity, memory – and most importantly humanity – all remain at the core of these new paintings.  Landscapes, even when reduced to their essentials, are imbued with the people who make them and pass through them, through whose eyes they are seen and interpreted, and with their struggles and pain, hope and redemption.

A train, passing over innumerable invisible borders, calls to mind the vast movements of peoples over history, creating a palimpsest of ethnicities and cultures that refuse to be confined by imposed boundaries.  This is brought to a sort of clarification in images which use layer upon layer of paint to produce a deeply harmonious final composition.

Desert

Desert

William Foyle: Landscapes is at Asia House, 63 New Cavendish Street, London until 23rd June 2019

Van Gogh on Screen

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The paintings of Vincent Van Gogh are some of the most instantly recognisable images anywhere in the world. But why is this so and where did they come from? Of all artists, the life of Van Gogh seems supremely suited for the big screen, with its mixture of youthful hope, artistic passion and personal tragedy. This beautifully structured documentary directed by David Bickerstaff reveals the man behind the paintings as human rather than the mythic figure of his final traumatic years.

EOS Vincent van Gogh © Seventh Art Productions & Annelies van der Vegt-42

Scene one is the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam where the viewer is taken behind the scenes of a major rehang, meeting the curators, researchers and others who explain how and why they choose to present Van Gogh to today’s visitors – from an intense room of twelve self-portraits, to another which attempts to put the artist in context, beside his friends and contemporaries as well as within a broader art history which influenced and inspired him.

EOS Vincent van Gogh © Seventh Art Productions & Annelies van der Vegt-20

Vincent’s letters to his brother Theo, written throughout his life and kept by Theo’s family until the museum was opened in 1973, are an invaluable resource. These document not just the events that shaped the artist but his every emotional reaction; narration and images of these (often illustrated) letters, together with panoramic views of the landscapes that Van Gogh passed through and lived in, creates a deep sense of understanding of a man so famously misunderstood during his lifetime. And they remind one that there were many years before the great ‘masterpieces’ were painted, during which Van Gogh trained to be an art dealer, a school teacher, a preacher, and eventually dedicated himself to art – but initially intending to work as an illustrator for the press.

EOS Vincent van Gogh © Seventh Art Productions & Teio Meedendorp -3

The sensitive critical analysis of the curatorial team, the carefully edited excerpts from Vincent’s correspondence and the visual feast of Van Gogh’s paintings in close-up combine to create a spell-binding 90 minutes. Plus, with the Tate Britain exhibition, Van Gogh and Britain, just announced for next spring, this is the perfect re-introduction to an artist who never ceases to astound.

Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), Irises, 1890 Saint Rémy-de-Provence © Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

Vincent van Gogh: A New Way of Seeing is an Exhibition On Screen film, directed by David Bickerstaff and produced by Phil Grabsky – in all major cinemas as well as local independent cinemas from 20th March 2018. With thanks to Seventh Art Productions for the images and stills.

This article was first published on Candid Magazine’s website.

Claude Muncaster: Landscapes and Seascapes

Claude Muncaster was a watercolourist known for his landscapes and maritime scenes.  He was born Grahame Hall, the son of the Royal Academician Oliver Hall who taught his son to paint from an early age; Grahame first exhibited his work aged 15 and a few years later was showing at the RA. However, he adopted the name Claude Muncaster in 1922 to dissociate his career from that of his father.Muncaster’s primary choice of subject matter came from a genuine love of the sea.  He made several long-distance sea voyages, including one around the Horn as a deckhand in the windjammer Olivebank in 1931, which he described in ‘Rolling Round the Horn’, published in 1933. Armed with a sketchbook, his aim was to be able to ‘paint ships and the sea with greater authority’.  This he certainly achieved, perfectly capturing the limpid first light of morning over the Port of Aden, the choppy rain-grey waters of the Bay of Biscay and a streak of sunlight through gathering storm clouds at dusk in Exeter.  He became an Associate of the Royal Watercolour Society in 1931 and was a founder member, and later President, of the Royal Society of Marine Artists.

During the Second World War, Muncaster served in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (RNVR) from 1940-44, training as a navigator before going on to advise on the camouflage of ships, and also worked as an official war artist.  In ‘Still Morning at Aden’ (below, 1944) he depicts Allied warships in this safe anchorage in the Middle East; the back is stamped with Admiralty approval.

In 1946-7 he was commissioned by the Queen to produce watercolours of the royal residences at Windsor, Sandringham and Balmoral; the Duke of Edinburgh, in a foreword to a biography of Muncaster, recalls looking at these and considering the artist’s ‘unerring instinct for a subject’, his sense of atmosphere.  Other commissions included large panoramas of the Thames and of Bradford. His career also included work as an etcher, illustrator, writer, lecturer and broadcaster, and his paintings can be found in the Royal Academy, Tate, National Maritime Museum Cornwall, National Railway Museum and Royal Air Force Museum.

If you are interested in purchasing a watercolour by Claude Muncaster please visit http://manningfineart.co.uk/?s=muncaster

Or please visit the Manning Fine Art stand at Olympia Winter Art & Antiques Fair from 31st October – 5th November http://www.olympia-antiques.com

Clifford Ellis: Graphic Artist, Camofleur, Abstractionist & Teacher

Clifford Ellis studied illustration at the Regent Street Polytechnic, an institution that specialised in ’practical trade classes’, from 1924-27. He went on to design book covers (notably for Collins’ ‘New Naturalist’ series) and posters for London Transport, the General Post Office, Shell-Mex, the Empire Marketing Board and J. Lyons & Co., along with his wife, Rosemary Ellis, whom he married in 1931 while he was teaching at the Polytechnic.

The couple’s poster designs combine striking colour with bold typography and depict stylised scenes of the countryside, birds and animals.  In the 1930s London Transport commissioned over forty posters a year from well-known artists such as Laura Knight, CRW Nevinson, Edward Wadsworth, Eric Ravilious, Paul Nash, Graham Sutherland and Edward McKnight Kauffer – a bold policy that did much to popularise avant-garde artistic styles that stemmed from Cubism, Futurism and Abstraction.  Such an influence is clear in the Ellises poster ‘It’s better to shop early’ (above, 1935) in which arms, hands and parcels are disjointed and angular with the text on a slant, like the collaged newsprint insertions of synthetic Cubism.

This strong foundation in graphic art clearly influenced his approach to composition for the rest of his career.  Even his later abstract work, though tonally subtle, is based on a simple but powerful linear design.  ‘The Coming of the Ice Age’, a series of watercolour and crayon studies (one large finished canvas, ‘Advance of an Ice Age’, exists in the collection of Derbyshire and Derby School Library Services) reduces natural forms to simplified shapes and colour planes, though retaining the texture of brushstrokes and crayon. The Ellises visited the Devon coastal town of Teignmouth to carry out a commission for Lyons for a lithograph in 1947, and the rocky bay with its whitewashed buildings and sailboats (below) caught Clifford’s imagination.  He painted numerous preparatory watercolour views for the lithograph, while both the grey-blue colour palette as well as the pleasing repetitive geometry of sails reflected on water might be discerned in later abstract works.

During the Second World War Ellis served as a camouflage artist and official war artist with the Grenadier Guards.  Roland Penrose was another British artist who worked in this area and wrote ‘The Home Guard Manual of Camouflage’ which effectively adapted modern painting techniques for use in warfare.  The tonal colour range of many of Ellis’s post-war paintings and the abstract network of shapes – for instance the pale blue patchwork ‘glacier’ in the ‘Coming of the Ice Age III’ (below) – seem to hark back to the art of the modernist camoufleur.

Ellis played another important role during the war, painting and drawing scenes of Bath for the Recording Britain project.  This project was conceived by Kenneth Clark, then Director of the National Gallery, alongside the official War Artists scheme; its aim was to document Britain’s landscape and architectural heritage in the face of the imminent threat of invasion and bomb damage. It also had a propaganda motive; the resulting works were exhibited during the war and aimed to boost the nation’s morale (they are now in the collection of the V&A). The paintings were predominantly in watercolour, a traditional British medium that Clark was keen to promote and felt would complement the subject matter.  Two of Ellis’ pupils, discussing his watercolour sketch of VE Day in Bath, recall him as quietly observant but also someone who enjoyed life; the painting is spontaneous and full of the movement of dancing figures and waving flags. 

In particular, Ellis was commissioned to depict examples of Bath’s decorative architectural ironwork before it was removed to help the war effort and he also recorded the effects of bombing raids on the city.

Meanwhile Ellis had joined the staff of the Bath School of Art (or Bath Technical College). Its temporary residence was destroyed by bombs in 1942 and Walter Sickert’s house at Bathampton offered as a refuge (Sickert, who had taught at the School, died in January 1942). After the war the School began its transformation into the Bath Academy of Art based at Corsham Court, of which Ellis was the Head from 1937-72, training art teachers and developing a pioneering new syllabus.

If you are interested in purchasing works by Clifford & Rosemary Ellis, please visit http://manningfineart.co.uk/product-tag/clifford-ellis/

Or come and visit Manning Fine Art’s stand at Olympia Art & Antiques Fair from 31st October – 5th November http://www.olympia-antiques.com