John Armstrong: Paintings 1938-1958 – An Enchanted Distance

1556_1000John Armstrong’s paintings are an enigma.  Over a period in which many artists turned to abstraction, Armstrong remained firmly figurative, yet his spaces are hard to define and his symbolism elusive.  Perhaps best known for his participation in the short-lived movement ‘Unit One’, founded by Paul Nash along with Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson, Henry Moore, Wells Coates and Herbert Read in 1933, and his powerful paintings inspired by the Spanish Civil War, Armstrong was a surrealist in all but name.  He claimed that what he painted appeared to him in dreams – ‘these things come to me as complete images, often when I am half asleep’ he wrote in 1953 – and an obvious comparison is De Chirico, whose uncanny style permeates the eerily silent spaces populated by anthropomorphic figures and empty, often Classical, buildings (‘Feathers Conclave’, 1946, below).


Piano Nobile presents a concise selection of paintings from Armstrong’s most prolific – and experimental – years.  Beginning in the late 1930s the works span an eclectic variety of themes, media and techniques.  The earlier work is painted primarily in quick-drying tempera – ‘a medium for those who have made up their mind’ in Armstrong’s words – yet there are a number of superb examples which show him to have been an equal master of oil paint.  He also veered from flawlessly smooth surfaces to a distinctive mosaic effect, square dabs of paint like tesserae creating the same visual effects that Pointillism sought.


In conjunction with religious subjects (to which Armstrong, son of a parson, returned repeatedly) this technique appears imbued with the hieratic symbolism of the Hagia Sophia or St Mark’s in Venice (‘Madonna’, 1945, above).  Elsewhere, political themes are uppermost – especially the threat of war which perpetually hung over Armstrong’s life and career.  His figures are anonymous and unseeing, standing in a deserted post-apocalyptic landscape; in ‘Encounter in the Plain’ (c.1938, top left) the loss of the Spanish civil war is made explicit in the tombstones lining the roadside while the head of an enormous blindfolded woman is literally in the clouds, while the post-war ‘Figure in Contemplation’ (1945, below), with its single shrouded form, is suffused with a ‘melancholic absence’.


A later Cold War era work, ‘Victory’ (1958, below), is arguably the most arresting image in the exhibition: a wildly staring scarecrow figure lurches towards us, arms akimbo – ‘the central figure is a parody of a human being – half-human scarecrow.  He’s the winner of a nuclear war. the crumpled lumps at either side – they’re the losers…’ described Armstrong.  Yet another scarecrow in the background might be taken as an image of the crucifixion, promising a kernel of hope amidst the ashes of civilisation.


But just as often Armstrong’s figures morph into leaves or feathers, standing enrobed and statuesque in those empty landscapes, or caught in an esoteric dance (‘Leaf Forms’, 1947, below left), the animated still life weighted with a complex and layered symbolism reminiscent of Magritte’s surrealist canvases.


The exhibition’s accompanying catalogue illuminates the other side of Armstrong’s career.  His work as a society muralist and designer of sets and costumes for film, theatre and ballet (including Alexander Korda’s ‘The Scarlet Pimpernel’) is visible in the way he constructs a deceptive sense of space and depth; his knowledge of classics and service in the Royal Field Artillery in Egypt and Macedonia during World War I helps to explain his predilection for archaic and classical themes.  In the late 1950s Armstrong’s second marriage to a much younger woman produced the joyful ‘Thorn and Seed’ paintings (1958, below), while during these same years Armstrong was also associated with the ‘Geometry of Fear’ artists (Henry Moore, Lynn Chadwick, Bernard Meadows, Eduardo Paolozzi) – a term coined by his Unit One associate Herbert Read to describe a new Cold War era imagery belonging ‘to the iconography of despair, or of defiance’.


Like many British artists who reached maturity during the interwar years Armstrong has been somewhat overlooked; this must be attributed to the lack of a strong group aesthetic – there was no ‘Cubism’, ‘Futurism’ or ‘Camden Town’ that by style, subject or location could unite these disparate artists, as the rapid dispersal of Unit One proved.  Each with a uniquely innovative vision, they could not be yoked together.  Armstrong’s work assimilates the fear of war and hopes of fresh beginnings in contemplative yet unsettling compositions – it speaks of timeless truths and warnings that are equally applicable today. It is certainly time for a reappraisal.

‘John Armstrong: Paintings 1938-1958 – An Enchanted Distance’ is at Piano Nobile, 129 Portland Road, London W11 4LW until 8 December 2015 –

British Artists and the Spanish Civil War

Felicity Ashbee 1937 lithoThe First World War is rightly seen as engendering some of the greatest and most avant-garde art and poetry of the twentieth century.  But Pallant House has chosen to highlight another conflict that – without any official impetus – spurred a significant cross-section of British artists to create striking and progressive work.  The Spanish Civil War brought political developments in Europe to a head in 1936-9, and was seen by most as a testing ground for the newly powerful ideologies of Fascism and Communism.  This exhibitBrangwyn_SpainReliefPoster_loion brilliantly illustrates the response of British artists to this threat – whether overtly political or more philosophical, actively propagandist or contemplative – in a wide range of media that gives an immediacy to their work.

Moreover, many are relatively unknown artists whom it is a pleasure to discover more than holding their own amongst famous names such as Henry Moore.  Felicity Ashbee, for instance, whose hard-hitting posters urging aid for the Spanish people (above left) were deemed too much for London Transport passengers.  Frank Brangwyn’s design (above right) appears Felicia Brownedated in comparison, its Madonna-like central figure at odds with the Republican cause he promotes (Brangwyn was a Catholic, yet in Spain the church had sided with Franco’s Nationalists, while the Republican anarchists were accused of atrocities against religious buildings and clergy).  And Felicia Browne, the only British woman to fight in the war and the first to be killed in August 1936, is represented by sketches of Spanish peasant women (left, 1936) which were exhibited posthumously in London to raise money for the cause she had died for.

Clive Branson is another name that is new to me, and on purely aesthetic terms his naive proto-‘kitchen sink’ style does not appeal.  However, in this context his paintings illustrate the political passions aroused by the Spanish cause.  Branson, a staunch communist who fought with the International Brigade in Spain, saw the conflict as part of a wider struggle for worker’s rights, and pictures such as ‘Demonstration in Battersea’ (below, 1939) or ‘Selling the “Daily Worker” outside Projectile Engineering Works’ (1937) link the immediate cause of unity against Fascism in support of the Spanish Republic with the unity of workers against capitalism (the pertinence of the Projectile factory in the latter painting being that the workers are building the bombs that will be used to destroy them).

branson demo in battersea 1939

From Realism to Surrealism… The outbreak of the Spanish Civil War coincided with the International Surrealist Exhibition in London in 1936, and though the movement was ostensibly concerned with depicting the subconscious and the dreamlike, many who showed at that exhibition were to engage – perhaps obliquely – with the unfolding tragedy in Spain.  edward-burra-medusa-for-websiteThe room is dominated by two large scale paintings: Edward Burra’s ‘Medusa’ (left, 1938) and S.W. Hayter’s ‘Paysage Anthopophage’ (below, 1938).  Burra’s mythological monster stands amid a ravaged landscape of ancient ruins with a cloak of dead bodies slung over one shoulder; it is a chilling and deeply unsettling image that conveys all the sense of dread that Burra had experienced briefly in Spain in early 1936.  Hayter’s painting is more metaphorical, drawing parallels with ‘The Siege of Numantia’ by the Romans in 133BC (recounted in a play by Cervantes).  Despite the bright abstract shapes, there is an impression of searing heat and the sinuous bodies sprawled on the arid ground stand out in tragic finality.

hayter_paysageanthropophage 1938

A collage by Roland Penrose seems less relevant, though perhaps draws attention to the crucial part the artist himself played  in both the surrealist movement and in focusing public attention on the plight of Spain by enabling Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ to be shown in London.  Andre Masson and John Banting both contribute surreal satires on the morally ambiguous role of the Catholic church in the war.  It wasn’t just through painting, however, that the surrealists took made their views known; photographs and ephemera recount their political declarations and show Penrose and others wearing Neville Chamberlain masks designed by the sculptor F.E. McWilliam on the May Day march of 1938, in protest at Britain’s non-intervention policy.


F.E. McWilliam is also represented by ‘Spanish Head’ (right, 1938-9), its features reduced to a single piercing eye and a scream that from the bared teeth seems to resonate upwards into space and time.  This makes an arresting companion piece to Picasso’s ‘Weeping Woman’ in the next room; Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ (1937) was and is seen as the seminal artistic response to the Spanish Civil War and ‘Weeping Woman’ is a continuation of this theme, an image of universal suffering.  Roland Penrose, having organised the exhibition of ‘Guernica’ in London, bought the painting and both these images had a significant impact on British artists both politically and stylistically.

neslerwalter_premonition 1937

‘Guernica’ depicted the impact of the first full scale aerial bombing of civilians, and this now loomed as a potential threat to any city that came into conflict with Fascism.  Walter Nessler’s powerful ‘Premonition’ (left, 1937) sums up the attitude that prevailed post-1937, its ominous red light outlining a shadowy urban landscape of ruins culminating in a gas mask keeping watch over the distant pinnacles of St. Paul’s and the National Gallery.  Merlyn Evans’s brooding tableaux of abstracted mechanical figures in metallic colours embody the same sense of an inhuman threat.

John Armstrong - RevelationsIn contrast, John Armstrong’s tempera paintings in bright pastel colours evoke a sense of pathos; still and silent in the blazing sunlight, they depict the empty ruins of Spanish homes, wallpaper torn, fireplaces cold and abandoned, as in ‘Revelations’ (right, 1938).

The V&A, in an unusually controversial move, chose this moment to exhibit Goya’s series of prints ‘Los Desastres de la Guerra’; depicting the horrors of the Peninsular War in 1807-1814 this was considered a direct parallel to the current conflict, a comparison to which a number of artists responded.


Of these, the two artists shown alongside a selection of Goya prints were interestingly either pro-Nationalist or ambivalent.  Wyndham Lewis began painting ‘The Surrender of Barcelona’ (left, 1934-7) before the civil war broke out; he described it as a 14th century scene, with the frieze of soldiers in the foreground believed to refer to Velazquez’s ‘Surrender of Breda’ (1635), but pertinently he changed the title from ‘Siege’ to ‘Surrender’ as Barcelona, long the stronghold of the Republicans, finally fell to Franco’s forces in 1939.

burra_thewatcher 1937Meanwhile, Edward Burra’s ‘The Watcher’ (right, 1937) depicts a sinister hooded and cloaked figure facing another with his back to us holding a two-pronged scythe amid a landscape of imposing ruin.  Burra is sometimes described as pro-Franco but was in fact apolitical, deeply affected by the burning of churches he had witnessed in Spain.  His paintings of this period reflect his horror of the violence and suffering inflicted by both sides, their ambiguous and theatrical historicising enabling the artist to distance himself from the situation.


The final room considers the plight of those affected by the violence – the prisoners and refugees.  Henry Moore’s sculpture ‘Helmet’ is accompanied by his designs for a poster (‘Spanish Prisoner’, left, 1939) that was in the end abandoned as world war erupted in 1939.  Ursula McCannell, hailed as a ‘child prodigy’ when she first had her work exhibited aged thirteen, had visited Spain early in 1936 and back in Britain painted stark, almost biblical, images of emaciated Spanish refugees in the style of El Greco or Picasso’s Blue Period (‘Family of Beggars’, below right, 1939).mccannell_familyofbeggars 1939

Clive Branson was himself a prisoner of war in Spain, and produced both small oils of the landscape he could see from the camp, and touching pencil portraits of his fellow prisoners (below). Back in Britain, a ship full of Spanish children arrived on the south coast in 1937 where they were put up in hostels. Edith Tudor-Hart photographed them at play or happily peeling vegetables; they might as easily be scenes of an annual scout camp, but in the context it was a poignant message that Britain had finally intervened to help in some way improve (or perhaps save) the lives of these children.

branson - Portrait at prison camp palencia Aug 1938

Among all these various pictures and sculptures are documents and artefacts, propaganda posters and banners, which give a rounded view of the efforts of British artists in all fields to raise awareness and support the cause of the Spanish people.  Beyond this multifaceted history, the appeal of the exhibition lies in the unusual and fascinating mixture of artists brought together by their involvement with Spain, artistic hierarchy put in second place to passion and spirit.

The later response to the Spanish Civil War, including artists such as RB Kitaj in the 1960s, I felt irrelevant and uninteresting; however, I was thrilled to find a room in the permanent collection dedicated to Spanish paintings – mainly of the same period though not related to the war – by artists such as David Bomberg, Walter Nessler, John Banting, William Nicholson and Muirhead Bone.  This made a stunning accompaniment to the show and a tribute to a beautiful, if betimes ravaged, country.