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

Printmaking explored: The American Dream

 

The British Museum is exhibiting recent additions to its print collection that celebrate contemporary innovations in the medium.  ‘The American Dream: Pop to the Present’ presents a rich display of different US artists’ work from the last half century, beginning with the expected Warhols and Rauschenbergs before turning to the experimentations of Conceptualists and Minimalists – and also engaging with the political and social use of printmaking.

The range of techniques is fascinating and impressive.  Alongside the instantly recognisable ‘Flags I’ (above, 1973) by Jasper Johns – though here in screenprint form, using thirty-one different screens to create a pseudo-painterly effect – Jim Dine’s series of etched Paintbrushes (above, 1973) are more subtle, but full of charm with their dancing bristles against an ink spattered background that epitomises the debris of the creative process, the artist’s studio.

Ed Ruscha’s slick and witty screenprints – such as the iconic ‘Standard Station’ (above, 1966) – and his lithographs ‘Made in California’ and ‘Ooo’ which experiment with dripping pigment onto the stone plate to create colour saturated words in space, comment on the advertising and consumerism of sixties California.

The woodcut or linocut may seem a more primitive printing method in comparison but the results are no less distinctively modern.  Wayne Thiebaud’s ‘Gumball Machine’ (above, 1970) celebrates another ubiquitous Amercian consumerist icon, while further on in the exhibition Vija Celmins’ ‘Ocean’ (below) – a woodcut which took the artist a year to create – is so accomplished that one has to peer closely to convince oneself that it is not a photograph.

Beyond the minimalism of Donald Judd et al, we return to figuration and an interesting series of portraits by Chuck Close who experiments with paper pulp in his portrait of Keith Hollingworth (1981); the features are formed from a grid of small round pieces of dyed paper pulp in varying shades of grey.  A similar technique is used in ‘Phil Spitbite’ (below, 1995) – a portrait of composer Philip Glass – with the squares of the etched grid each filled by spitbite aquatint.  Another portrait of Keith, ‘Keith/mezzotint’ (1972), reinvents the antiquated method of mezzotint, rarely used since the 19th century, which involves rubbing back or burnishing the light areas from a textured (and therefore ink-holding) metal plate. Close was so pleased with the cumulative effects that this technique revealed that he allowed the grid guide to remain and this fed into his later work.

The accidental, revealing the hand of the artist or the flaws in the materials, was embraced by others too; indeed, ‘Accident’ (below, 1963) is the title given to one of Rauschenberg’s famous lithographs displayed here.  Producing some of the largest ever single plate lithographs – notably his magnificent ‘Booster’ (1967) and ‘Sky Garden’ (1969) – his ambition at one point got the better of him and the lithographic stone broke in the printing process; Rauschenberg not only made this a feature but even added some stone chips at the bottom to exaggerate the effect.

What impresses elsewhere – in the massed ranks of Marilyns or electric chairs by Warhol as well as in the careful, pale geometricism of Josef Albers (below) – is the exceptional choice of colour juxtaposition.  For all their brazen simplicity, the effect is striking, beautiful and perfect.

The second part of the exhibition addresses the political, both serious and satirical, from Jim Dine’s photo-etching with stencil colour ‘Drag – Johnson and Mao’ (below, 1967) to Warhol’s green-faced portrait of Richard Nixon above the scrawled incentive to ‘Vote McGovern’ (1972) and the feminist and race-related statements of Ida Applebroog, Kara Walker and Louise Bourgeois, among others, all making a powerful, unmistakable statement in the most simple pictorial terms.

The final gallery attempts to bring us up to date – most successfully perhaps by reintroducing Ed Ruscha, whose 1960s screenprints summed up the optimism of Pop Art and the American Dream.  Here, ‘Standard Station’ reappears, this time drained of colour, a simple embossed white image, a ghostly shadow of the high hopes of yesteryear.  Accompanying this are a couple of rusty signs riddled with bullet holes (‘Dead End 2’, 2014) – in fact they are mixographia prints on handmade paper, another extraordinarily effective technique – that seem to spell out the disillusionment in Trump-era America.

For prints currently for sale – including woodblock prints, etchings, aquatints and pochoir prints – please visit: https://www.kittyhudsonart.com/prints-1 

 

Oscar Andreae in Italy 1862

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In 1862 a young man named Oscar Andreae travelled to Italy, stopping en route in Nimes, Tarascon, Toulon, Cagnes and Nice, where in April 1862 he sketched a bird’s eye view of the Port of Nice (right), the rocks and the old chateau seen from Mont Alban.  The Fort of Mont Alban was constructed in the 16th century to stave off a combined Franco-Ottoman army; for Nice was then ruled by the Dukes of Savoy and – bar a few decades under Napoleonic rule from 1792 to 1814 – it was in effect ‘Italian’ (part of the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia) until 1860, only two years before Andreae visited the city.  The Treaty of Turin was signed in 1860 by the Sardinian king and Napoleon III, ceding the city to France in return for help in the wars of Italian Unification against Austria.

IMG_5353Looking the other way from this fortification one sees the Gulf of Villefranche, the Bay of St Jean and the Corniche, the route that snakes its way along this spectacular rocky coastline (left).  In view of the recent secession, both French and Italian names are used interchangeably by Andreae, with this sketch (below) entitled ‘Villafranca 18 April 1862’ and the inscription opposite noting ‘Port de Villefranche avec la fregatte russe’.  One of the deepest natural harbours on the Mediterranean, Villefranche became an important Russian naval base in the late 19th century.

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IMG_5355The Corniche leads on to Monaco, where Andreae sketches the new principality’s position on a rocky promontory (right and below). Monaco had been a protectorate of the Kingdom of Sardinia for much of the 19th century; the Franco-Monegasque Treaty of 1861 – a year before Andreae’s tour – confirmed Monaco’s sovereignty.  The glamour and wealth we associate with Monaco today is nowhere to be seen in this image of a provincial coastal town – however, the famous Monte Carlo Casino was to open the following year, in 1863.

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Menton (below), being in the County of Nice, was also annexed by France in the Treaty of Turin. At this time it was quickly becoming a popular destination for convalescents, following the 1861 publication of ‘Winter and Spring on the Shores of the Mediterranean’ by Dr. James Henry Bennet, whose tuberculosis was miraculously cured by spending those seasons in Menton.

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And then in March 1862 Andreae reaches the newly unified Italy. Victor Emmanuel had been proclaimed King on 17th March 1861 and Rome declared the capital ten days later.  However, Rome was still not officially part of Italy, remaining under the control of the Pope (with the protection of Napoleon III).  Just over a year after Andreae’s visit, the anti-Catholic Garibaldi would reappear from his brief obscurity on the island of IMG_5358Caprera to organise an ultimately unsuccessful march on Rome. The first stop was Porto Maurizio (now part of the city of Imperia, created by Mussolini) where Andreae sketches the Ponte d’Oneglia (left), a suspension bridge across the Impero.

IMG_5359Along the coast in Genoa he sketches the lighthouse or lanterna (right) – a symbol of the city’s maritime connections and for many centuries the tallest lighthouse in the world – and the gardens of Andrea Doria (below left), a Genoese condottieri and admiral of the 15th-16th centuries.

Then he heads to the lakes, stopping beneath a tree near Bellagio to sketch a view of Lake Como (below centre).  In the early 19th century Bellagio had become popular with the Milanese nobility after Count Melzi d’Eril, Duke of Lodi and chancellor of Napoleon’s Kingdom of Italy, built a luxurious summer villa there.

IMG_5360The beauty of the landscape also appealed to artists, writers and composers (Stendhal, Liszt and Flaubert, to name but a few) in this era of Romanticism and ideas of the Sublime. Next there is a view of Camerlata (now part of Como – below centre) with a few villas encircled by hills, a stone tower standing like a beacon above them. In 1859 Garibaldi and his Hunters of the Alps defeated the Austrians just outside Como, and Andreae notes in his sketchbook ‘c’est par cette valleé que Garibaldi est entré 1859 à Camerlata d’où il a chassé les autrichiens.’

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A view of Arona on Lake Maggiore shows the majestic castle, la Rocca di Angera, atop a rocky promontory with the town strung out along the shore beyond (left).  IMG_5364The castle is owned by the Borromeo family, originally merchants who set up a bank in Milan.  In 1446 Vitaliano Borromeo became Count of Arona, while in the 16th century his descendant, Carlo Borromeo, became a cardinal, then Archbishop of Milan and was eventually canonised.  The Borromean Islands – the Isola Bella, Isola Pescatori & Isola Madre, which Andreae sketches from a boat (below) – have been in the family since the 16th century, the palace and famous terraced gardens (complete with white peacocks) of the Isola Bella built in the 17th century.  Floating on the mirror-like surface of the lake, they appear as a beautiful dream, as they still do today.

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To see more drawings by Oscar Andreae please visit www.kittyhudsonart.com