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.

Auerbach at Tate Britain

UnknownFrank Auerbach’s early work is surprisingly sculptural. Even the charcoal portraits are rubbed back and reworked, torn, patched and built up again (‘Self-Portrait’, 1958, right).  The oil paintings in this first gallery are literally three-dimensional – relief sculptures within a box frame – the peaks and troughs of paint like an angry sea, coalescing into figural forms only when one steps back and allows the surface to flatten out.

IMG_3202‘E.O.W. Reclining Head II’ (1966, left and below) is a case in point; the paint swirls and sets hard across an invisible canvas like royal icing in plasticine colours. There is a very physical quality to these paintings, almost aggressively so; the jagged edges suggest that the paint has been moulded into these forms by hand, the primary colours run like harsh scars across the sitter’s cheek.

auerbach1halflegthnude-xlargeAnother, ‘E.O.W.: Half-Length Nude’ (1958, right), positively drips with pigment, the livid red and white tempered by a swamp-like greeny beige.  These late 1950s and 1960s works are already much brighter than those of the early 50s; paintings such as ‘Building Site, Earls Court’ (1953, below), which is so dark as to be barely legible, is described by Barnaby Wright (who curated ‘Frank Auerbach: London Building Sites 1952-62’ at the Courtauld Gallery in 2009-10): “Auerbach’s restless reworking of the subject resulted in expanses of thickly massed paint, its skin dried to a deeply wrinkled and puckered surface.  It is as if the paint has consumed almost all vestiges of the image itself.”  As the portraits become brighter, so do the cityscapes, revealing an angular, geometric framework of rigid lines so tactile that the paint almost becomes scaffolding (‘Mornington Crescent’, 1965, below).



Auerbach’s working method is intense and drawn-out.  He paints over each day’s work time and again until something “seems to lock like a theorem”.  The late 60s brought a radical change, however, as he began to scrape down the picture before his next attempt, leaving the picture surface flatter and allowing the brushstrokes to appear more spontaneous.  ‘The Origin of the Great Bear’ (1967-8, below) shows this new freedom and fluidity of line, the sheer enjoyment in the very substance of the paint.

The Origin of the Great Bear, 1967-8

As the exhibition progresses swiftly through the decades one begins to recognise the features of Auerbach’s favourite models (E.O.W., J.Y.M., Julia and Catherine Lampert – the exhibition’s curator – all appear repeatedly) despite their elusive features, auerbachsubsumed in the paint.  Like Picasso, Auerbach can evoke a face – and a personality – with minimal lines, perfectly chosen (‘Head of J.Y.M. II’, 1984-5, left; ‘Julia Sleeping’, 1978, below right).

In contrast to the length of time each painting takes to complete, the end result expresses a fleeting moment, a sudden turn of the head, a chance encounter, a ray of sunlight through cloud… “It was normal for us to sit in a small room with no means. We wanted to say something profound and precise, something sharp about truth,” Auerbach recalls, “…to pin down an experience in its essential aspect before it disappears.”auerbach_julia_sleeping_fraaue1506_2_aodmainimage

The later landscapes become ever more cheerful, almost Fauve, in colour and lose their early rigidity.  The contrast is all the greater as Auerbach has worked in the same studio since 1954 and has painted these same surroundings over the decades. In ‘Mornington Crescent – Early Morning’ (1991) the pink and blue buildings seem to lurch and sway as if they have lost their anchor.

id70rtIn more recent years balance has been recovered, vertical lines pinning down the composition in ‘Hampstead Road – High Summer’ (2010, left) with its jogger caught mid-stride in the foreground.  Here in the penultimate gallery the charcoal drawings reappear, still a Giacometti-like palimpsest of lines rubbed back and layered, but lighter and more spidery, echoing the looser brushwork of the later oils (‘Self-Portrait II’, 2013, below right)

Auerbach-MarlboroughFineArtThis is an unusual retrospective in that the artist has had a free hand in selecting the paintings to be exhibited in the first six chronologically arranged galleries – and for the fact that the curator, who has chosen the works in the final gallery to ‘resonate’ with these, herself appears as the subject of a number of the paintings. It is therefore quite a personal show about an artist grappling with his medium and his subject, by those who understand the intense nature of these struggles best. These last room gives a greater understanding of both Auerbach’s daily routine, with multiple images of the route to his studio, and his habit of working on a large and smaller canvas simultaneously.  There are also two small etchings by the exit which appear an afterthought, though in fact the artist is a talented and productive printmaker.  As Auerbach states in a text applied to the wall of the first gallery by way of introduction, his intention was that “each [picture] be considered as an absolute which works (or does not work) by itself”; in this sense it is a revelatory sequence of – some sublime – images.


Barbara Hepworth at Tate Britain


This is one of those refreshing exhibitions where there is little need to read too much (though Hepworth’s was an interesting life).   Instead one can simply admire the incredible forms that she created, her truth to materials and the aesthetic perfection she achieved through a finely judged balance of volume and weight.  The toad (above, 1928) jumped out at me in the first gallery, for these very reasons: the onyx used is so supremely toad-coloured, and Hepworth’s sensitive carving gives such a strong suggestion of the languorous sliminess of the creature, working with the veins of the stone to delineate his slippery form.  He appears amid a menagerie of animals and birds by those who influenced Hepworth’s early career – Jacob Epstein’s architectural, almost mechanically geometric doves, Henry Moore’s knotted marble serpent, her first husband John Skeaping’s beautiful lapis buffalo and bronze fish, as well as equally sumptuous carvings by artists now virtually unknown such as Alan L. Durst and Elsie Marion Henderson.

Mother and Child 1934 Dame Barbara Hepworth 1903-1975 Purchased with assistance from the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1993

The second gallery shows Hepworth’s work alongside Ben Nicholson’s, providing a narrative of their fruitful artistic interaction – as well as their domestic relationship, as Hepworth’s profile filters into Nicholson’s otherwise abstract compositions (echoed in her own experiments with photograms, and her touching sculpture ‘Two Heads’), and after giving birth to triplets Hepworth’s sculpture turns increasingly towards motherhood as a subject matter, as in ‘Mother and Child’ (1934, above).

Three Forms (Carving in Grey Alabaster) 1935 Dame Barbara Hepworth 1903-1975 Presented by the executors of the artist's estate 1980

Then the perspective is broadened as we are invited to consider Hepworth as a key figure in international modernism.  The pieces displayed are entirely abstract, the forms simplified to smooth rounded totems and spheres or geometric solids, placed in harmony (or tension) with one another – ‘Three Forms (Carving in Grey Alabaster)’ (above, 1935) is exemplary, each carefully juxtaposed element as coolly tactile as a wave-worn pebble yet as powerfully elemental as a monolith.


‘Pelagos’ (above, 1946) marks another development in Hepworth’s oeuvre.  After all the horrors of the Second World War, she found the purist abstraction of Constructivism – inspired by friends such as Naum Gabo and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy – unfulfilling on a human and spiritual level.  Drawings, both abstract and figurative studies of surgeons at work, chart these changing attitudes, a mental process of adaptation.  Her post-war sculpture becomes more organic, evoking natural forms in warm-hued wood, in this case elm with a painted white interior.  Photographs of these sculptures displayed in the Cornish landscape were meticulously choreographed  by Hepworth, whose move to St. Ives at the outbreak of war had a clear impact on her work, made clear in the wave-like curves of ‘Pelagos’.


This decisive attitude to the display of her work is explored further in archival photographs and film, before we return to her experimentation in wood with a gallery devoted to the monumental ‘Guarea’ works.  These enormous chunks of Nigerian tropical hardwood were a gift to Hepworth in the mid 1950s and encouraged her to work on a much bigger scale than she had attempted before.  Having just returned from a trip to Greece, each piece was named after a Greek location, such as ‘Corinthos’ (above, 1954-5). The scented reddish glow of the wood itself, as well as its size, imbue the sculptures with a primitive, religious or mystical aura.

Barbara Hepworth: Sculpture for a Modern World | Tate Britain 24 June - 25 October 2015 to promote exhibition only ...  Barbara Hepworth Oval Form (Trezion) 1961-63 Bronze 940 x 1440 x 870 mm Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museums Collections ©Bowness, Hepworth Estate

I was apprehensive in approaching the final gallery as Tate Britain has a tendency for ludicrous finales, with bizarre installations, multi-media displays or simply irrelevant/inferior contemporary art, in what must be a misguided attempt to make any exhibition ‘up-to-date’ or appealing to children… With Hepworth however we were safe; there was an installation of sorts, but it was relevant and fairly effective. From the 1950s Hepworth was exhibiting internationally and from the late fifties began using bronze which was more hard-wearing and allowed multiple editions; the final gallery recreates Gerrit Rietveld’s pavilion at the Kroller-Muller Museum gardens in the Netherlands where a retrospective of Hepworth’s work took place in 1965.  One of the sculptures displayed there – and now at the Tate – was ‘Oval Form (Trezion)’ (above, 1961-63).  As before, in Cornwall, Hepworth was delighted to see her work positioned within natural and architectural surroundings.  However, to get a real sense of the beauty of these late bronze pieces, one really must visit Hepworth’s garden in St. Ives.

The Origins of Photography

In ‘Salt and Silver: Early Photography 1840-1860’ Tate Britain combines a concise technical introduction to the development of the medium with thematic galleries that reveal the interest of its pioneers in documenting a particular age and its culture.

Talbot the great elm at lacock 1843-45William Henry Fox Talbot invented a form of photography in 1839 using paper coated in silver salts, the light causing the chemicals to blacken and thus creating a negative impression of the scene; light was then projected through this ‘negative’ onto a similarly coated sheet of paper to create a positive image.  Several of his early experimental studies of his home at Lacock Abbey and the surrounding landscape are displayed – such as ‘The Great Elm at Lacock’ (left, 1843-5) – showing remarkable precision yet with the soft sepia tinted glow of old paper lending an aged and atmospheric aspect.

Hill and Adamson Newhaven fishermen circa-1845Here we are also introduced to the one of the earliest photographic studios, set up by David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson in Edinburgh in the mid-1840s.  Beyond their portrait commissions, they used this new visual medium in the service of social documentary, capturing images of Newhaven fishermen and women (right, c.1845).

In the second gallery, several new methods are introduced: the waxed paper method and the glass plate method, which both achieved a print of greater precision and smoothness; in 1851, Louis-Desire Blanquart-Evrard invented the albumen print which would eventually replace the salt paper method.  This development is illustrated by various photographs of buildings and townscapes, an exploration of  ‘Modern Life’ that spread across Europe and beyond.

TAlbot - scene in a Paris street 1843Talbot, Henri Le Secq and Charles Marville record the streets of Paris (Talbot, ‘Scene in a Paris Street’, above, 1843), while Edouard Denis Baldus takes pictures of the Abbey at Saint-Denis, and the port and stations on the route travelled by Queen Victoria in 1855 for the ‘Queen’s Album’ (‘Chemin de fer du nord’, below top, 1855).


Fenton118Further afield Roger Fenton shows us supplies for the Crimean campaign arriving by ship at Cossack Bay, Balaklava (above), while Matthew Brady and George Kendall Warren capture images of life in the United States.


John Wheeley Gutch - Abbey Ruins c.1858Gustave Le Gray’s waxed paper method also allowed larger scale prints to be produced, while still preserving the texture of the paper print that distinguishes early photography.  The third gallery shows how this was used to great effect to document ancient ruins and relics (for example, John Wheeley Gotch’s ‘Abbey Ruins’, left, c.1858), many explorers and archaeologists taking up photography for this, rather than any purely artistic, purpose.  Charles Clifford becameSalzmann - a Cypriot statue 1858-65 official photographer for the Spanish royal family, and while resident there compiled albums of Spain’s historic monuments and great cathedrals.  Linnaeus Tripe, a Captain in the East India Company, published ‘Photographic Views in Madurai’ (Madras) in the 1850s, such as this image of Puthu Mundapum (above centre).  The archaeologist John Beasly Greene recorded sites in Egypt – including a huge portal at Thebes (below, 1854) – and in Constantine, Algeria; while another archaeologist, Auguste Salzmann, excavated many ancient statues and tombs in Jerusalem, Athens and Rhodes which he photographed close up, the rough texture of the stone complemented by the softly textured paper on which these images were printed (‘Cypriot Statue’, above right, 1858-65).

Beasly Greene Thebes 1854

Frenet - mother & son c.1855Perhaps the most popular theme of early photography was, not surprisingly, portraiture.  Studios were set up to cater to public demand, with the sitter carefully posed in the manner of the traditional painted portrait accompanied by attributes to suggest aspects of their personality or profession.  However, photography offered more than just a cheaper and quicker alternative to the painted portrait; it’s speed and portability meant that people could be presented informally, as in Jean-Baptiste Frenet’s outdoor scenes which capture spontaneous gestures of tenderness (left and below, 1855).Jean-Baptiste-Frenet Horse and Groom 1855

Roger Fenton-Captain Mottram Andrews 28th Regiment 1st Staffordshire Regiment of Foot-1855It could also be used in contexts that would not have allowed for painting, such as the army encampment in the Crimea, where Roger Fenton immortalises a hardy group of Croat supply carriers (below right, 1855), Captain Mottram Andrews resting in a camp chair (right, 1855), and Captain Lord Balgonie of the Grenadier Guards (below left, 1855) – not in gleaming uniform with a heroic stance but in ragged sheepskin and straggling beard within a bare canvas shelter.  There is a stark immediacy to this image of a war-weary young man – an image that also bears witness to the difficult and unglamorous conditions in which the soldiers lived – which underscores the seismic change that the invention of photography brought about in terms of how humans and events were portrayed.

FEnton croats 1855Grenadier-Balgonie-Captain-Guards

Folk Art comes to the Capital


The large open-plan gallery space at Tate Britain is painted in bright primary colours, and on entering one is faced with a selection of oversized objects representing various trades in the simplest form.  It initially feels rather like one has stepped into a child’s play area.  However, a few steps further on and the exceptional (if eccentric) craftsmanship becomes increasingly fascinating, offering glimpses into a past society that is rarely revealed in such a context.


And it is often highly entertaining.  There is a small advertisement for ‘Richards: Artists in Hair’ – produced from a woven mat of hair. There is John Vine’s ‘Three Fat Pigs’ (C19th, below) – similarly testament to an popular decorative trend which is now quite bemusing.  There are tavern signs (such as ‘The Laird O Dumbiedykes’, left) and modern parables, all bearing a short ditty beneath the imagery – such as the ‘City Foulers Mark’ of 1840 which depicts the local authorities, shotguns in hand, tracking down a man covertly ‘fouling’ behind a bush, with a few lines recording that, in brief, the smell led them toward their target!

IMG_2615Among all the anonymous artists – she who embroidered a nun’s veil with a silken map of the counties of England, or the sailor who produced woolwork pictures of each vessel, her title picked out in yarn  – a few names stand out.  The Kentish tailor George Smart’s personages created out of scraps of fabric became famous among visitors to Tunbridge Wells in early C19th and were reproduced to the extent that they became stylistically distinctive (for example, ‘Goosewoman’, c.1830-40, below).

IMG_2617Alfred Wallis is different; as the curators justly point out, he is the ‘great exception to the general neglect and marginalisation of self-taught and artisan art by the British cultural establishment’ (which they are doing their best to put right with a show at Tate).  Wallis was ‘discovered’ by Ben Nicholson and Christopher Wood at a time when ‘primitive’ or ‘naive’ art was being championed by European modernists – a serendipity of time and place; there must have been countless ex-fishermen through the ages and in every harbour creating images of boats who remain buried in obscurity.

‘A View of Groombridge Place, East Sussex’ (c.1754-60) is a wonderful example of IMG_2618portrait of an estate that attempts to be topographically descriptive rather than simply scenic.  The boundary fence and ornate gates are flattened so that one can see the pattern of the metalwork, but look as if they have blown over in a strong wind, while the proud owner of the property stands at the height of the church, were the perspective and scale to be believed.  Other oddments gathered together in a display case are a mixture of the practical and the puzzling: blackened leather Toby jugs in the form of buxom female figures, a wood-carved figure who cracks nuts between his jaws (the earliest exhibit, dating form 1595-1605), and the mysterious examples of ‘god in a bottle’ – carved religious symbols contained in glass and glowing eerily.

IMG_2619The following room is dedicated to ships figureheads and figures representing trades.  A vast effigy of an Indian man who once adorned the HMS Calcutta from 1831-1908 dominates in garish glory (above right), facing a jaunty highlander (left) who was once a regular sight in the doorways of tobacconists shops (Glasgow being a major centre for importing tobacco).

Mary Linwood is an anomaly, a fact acknowledged by her work being shown in a separate niche in the gallery trail.  She straddles the distinction between Folk Art and Fine Art – one of the few facts definitely asserted – with her rather gloomy, though impressively large-scale, needlework reproductions of famous paintings.

Then we are quickly re-immersed in colour in the final display of ‘abstract’ folk art.  It is well-arranged, for indeed these pieces – mostly quilts – eschew all recognisable symbolism.  And for the good reason that they are not trying to relate a narrative, commemorate a person, sell a product or describe a place.  But can we not appreciate them for the incredible feats of craftsmanship that they are rather than having to ‘re-contextualise’ them as some sort of forerunner to the arrogant frivolity of ‘abstract art’?  Their ‘form, colour and material’ – those fundamentals of modernist appreciation – are quite apparent, and perhaps even more so, in the knowledge of their real practical purpose.  The brief stories bring the work alive; not just arbitrary lines on fabric after all, the pattern of the ‘Clicker Quilt’ (1920-30) mirrors the leather templates used in shoe manufacturing.  The ‘Crimean Quilt’ (c.1853-6, below) tells an even more affective tale, the construction of its intricate kaleidoscope of coloured cloth was a form of therapy for injured soldiers of the Crimean war – a fact that does much to undermine the traditional concept of craft as ‘feminine’ (though this has been well proven by previous exhibits already).


In a final epilogue are photographs of some of these diverse objects being created or used in their traditional context: May Day parades and mummers, ship-breakers’ yards and women dousing petals for well-front adornments.  The show is refreshing in that it doesn’t preach or teach too much; ‘Folk Art’ is described loosely, the exhibits range widely and we as spectators are left to enjoy the dexterity and the whimsy and make up our own minds what the term might mean.  However the curators are tempted at times into treading on eggshells, almost castigating themselves as representatives of the British art ‘establishment’ for having ‘marginalised’ such popular art for so long (in the same way that politicians still feel obliged to apologise for the fact of slavery and colonialism).  This is unnecessary, for the objects in the exhibition speak not of repression and discrimination as they fear, but appear more immediately a joyful celebration of community, industry and imagination; it is a paean to British eccentricity through the ages, and one which is now in a more cynical and digitalised age largely lost.

Gary Hume & Patrick Caulfield

Beautiful (2002) (gloss paint on aluminium) Gary Hume

Can you tell what this is?  It is Michael Jackson’s nose on Kate Moss’s face, only the outline of the face is a barely visible indent in the thick industrial gloss paint.  I needed the guide-booklet to tell me that – as I needed the title to inform me that ‘Nicola as an Orchid’ (below right) was meant to be either a person or a flower.  I hadn’t realised that Gary Hume was so abstract.  Hume’s name is familiar but until now I had never seen such a broad range of his work; his trademark use of enamel gloss paint on aluminium is immediately recognisable but beyond that much of the subject matter was unexpected.


Tate Britain seems to sit on the fence here, claiming that the Hume show is not a retrospective as it’s twin exhibition on Patrick Caulfield clearly is, and deliberately not creating too thematic or chronological a hang.  Yet it is not a show of new work either, though in scale it is similar to that which a gallery like the White Cube might put on.  This is not to its detriment; having set Hume and Caulfield alongside – whatever one’s thoughts on this pairing might be – it is interesting to have an in-depth visual study of the work of an artist still in the midst of his career set alongside a more familiar retrospective of one whose career has come to an end.


Both certainly use colour very skilfully in large flat planes with sharply defined edges.  Hume’s combination of aluminium and gloss paint creates such a smooth and even effect that in some images it is hard to spot the hand of the artist at all; the outlines seem to be created by raised ridges of paint, an organic part of the painting’s surface – rather like the veins on a plant’s leaf (as in ‘Tulips’, left).  However, there are several images – ‘Green Nicola’ and ‘Tony Blackburn’ (below right) – in which the brushstroke seems to have been deliberately emphasised, as if to remind one of the actual process of creation.  And sometimes lines are scratched into the paint, revealing the artist’s hand.


Both Hume and Caulfield insist on their paintings as two dimensional objects, disallowing their subject matter to exist as anything other than an image of itself, subjected to the artist’s distortions and reinterpretations on an abstract level.  Hume to a greater degree; his paintings are first and foremost careful compositions of colour planes, the subject matter secondary.  Or perhaps not secondary, but adding to the purely aesthetic an intellectual or emotional engagement.  Some darker, more sombre compositions, or the saccharine, glutinous pools of colour in ‘The Cradle’ turn out to be about birth and parenthood, which instantly changes one’s perspective; they become suddenly disturbing, morally ambiguous.  Elsewhere Hume challenges accepted notions of beauty, as in the image I began with, entitled ‘Beautiful’.  By using such deliberately artificial media, and isolating or abstracting elements of what Western society considers the epitome of beauty, Hume re-packages the ‘beautiful’, and serves it up to us in a state that demands us to question our conformity to cultural standards in an image-obsessed world.


Patrick Caulfield might likewise appear to offer a simplified expression of everyday objects, but he too questions our perception.  It is unsurprising to learn of his general association with pop art, as this affinity is the most immediate impression.  The flat, bright planes of colour, the clean and precise technique mirroring the manufactured consumerist objects that he depicts; all pin him within the artistic culture of the sixties in which he emerged.  Caulfield, however, claimed early Cubism as his heritage; knowing this, one immediately sees it everywhere – not least in his early still life (above) where the jug, if not subjected to such rigorous visual analysis as a Braque or Picasso, still questions the shape and solidity of the object, creating a formal tension with the two-dimensionality of the picture plane.  Next door to this there is a portrait of Juan Gris, just to make the point – though this portrait of his idol, a cartoon figure on a flat yellow ground surrounded by odd zig-zagged lines, couldn’t be less Cubist.

In other early works, Fernand Leger seems the more appropriate reference; the heavily outlined, machine-made forms echo Leger’s famous construction scenes full of cones and cylinders, pipes and girders, though without even his nominal sense of volume or perspective, and without the busy-ness of faceted colour or implied movement.  There is an emptiness and essential lack of any real subject at all in paintings like ‘The Well’ (below) and ‘The Bend in the Road’.  Strangely perhaps, I found myself thinking that Caulfield must have been a fan of contemporary cinema, as these paintings seemed almost like stills from an action film, encapsulating that tense moment before a speeding car bursts into view around the Bend in the Road, or the hovering camera suggests the (probably sinister) narrative import of the well, yet to be revealed.


As his career progresses, Caulfield’s images become more complex.  He moves from isolated objects to interiors, his stark black outlines allowing a basic perspective – though this is almost overpowered by the formal aesthetic of graphic patterns and saturated colours.  Caulfield is selective in his use of colours, in the sense that objects which should be differentiated by colour are left uniform, allowing the artist’s chosen focus point to jump out in an exaggeratedly acidic hue.  Often this point of interest is the source of light, and the tones used emphasise its artificiality (though in one interior, below right, the light comes from a Lichtenstein-esque ray of sun in solid black and blue stripes).  The stark modern interiors with their silent and alienating atmosphere recall the American diners of Edward Hopper, recreated in pop art style and with any human element disposed of entirely.








The next real development in Caulfield’s work came in the 1970s – to which we pass with a brief footstep – and it shows him experimenting with trompe l’oeil.  The fundamental idea of combining different levels of reality within the picture plane once again shows Caulfield’s indebtedness to analytical Cubism.  In some works a ‘realistic’ wallpaper that could almost be collage appears within the otherwise cartoonishly simplified interior typical of Caulfield.  Elsewhere, ‘real’ plates of food appear on painted tabletops, and ‘real’ flowers grow in the gardens of painted apartment block.

DACS; (c) DACS; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

In ‘After Lunch’ (below) an alpine landscape is represented in equally detailed photorealism, the only point of colour in an otherwise uniformly blue painting (except for the rudimentary goldfish, that is).  Such insertions complicate the status of reality and illusion.  Here, the landscape appears to be a framed poster, a 2D image within the ‘real’ space of a modernist interior; yet this interior is in fact a flat composition of lines on a canvas, undifferentiated even by colour, while the illusion of perspective in the image within it demands its comprehension as point of ‘reality’, viewed through a window.

After Lunch, 1975

In his late works, Caulfield’s characteristic outline disappears.  He becomes interested in trying to depict perspective using light effects, these described with planes of modulated colour.  The effect is dramatic, with strong diagonals cutting through the image, against which secondary elements such as lamps and vases are silhouetted.  All that cannot be delineated in this way is left out, resulting in an image distilled to its essentials.  At the same time Caulfield continues his playful trickery with trompe l’oeil effects, the glass doors to this late interior (below) painted in perfect simulation of our ‘reality’ but leading through into the artist’s parallel, disorientating world of colour and light beyond.  And so we end behind the swing doors where we began – by pushing through the REAL, solid, functioning swing doors that lead into the exhibition, and which are in fact a ‘work of art’ by Gary Hume.  Confusing.


Schwitters at Tate Britain

Picture of Spatial Growths - Picture with Two Small Dogs 1920-39 by Kurt Schwitters 1887-1948

Look closely at this picture, and you may spot two tiny china dogs enthroned within a box-shaped niche embedded in the canvas towards the top.  This was my highlight.  Schwitters’ collages are full of such incidental appearances.  Newsprint girls peek out from behind tatty bus tickets and other assorted scraps of paper; a man in a mackintosh strolls onto a set-piece of brown paper in a cameo role to nowhere; an ostrich is partly obscured by a whitewash fog.  The components of these ‘merz’ works are all the detritus of everyday life.  Schwitters accorded every medium an equal status with paint – metal, wood, plastic toys, wool, net and paper all combine with oils in a tactile layering of textures and visual effects.  And the palimpsest of found objects that are the basic ingredients of his art testify to his own peripatetic life story.

We begin in Germany after the First World War.  Collage had been raised to avant-garde status by Picasso and Braque a few years earlier; but though Schwitters’ compositions often focus on one truncated word clipped from a newspaper, advertisement or food wrapper, this is one of many such insertions, and he rejects the primary importance of paint, the faceting and fragmentation of the subject matter that was key to the Cubist mentality.  What he took from the Cubists he combined with the dynamic, minimalist forms of the Russian Constructivists, and – in rebellion against the determined abstraction of the latter – with the surrealism of Max Ernst, to whom the cast of bit-part actors and assorted pets are obliged.

Kurt Schwitters Artworks

Schwitters himself appears in one.  After his work was branded ‘degenerate’ by the Nazi regime, Schwitters fled to Norway, and from there to Britain where he docked at Leith in 1940.  The glimpse of his face amid layers of torn brown paper and old newsprint is, in such a context, poignant.  He was adrift abroad, forcibly exiled, his future uncertain, his identity as an artist in question, and trodden underfoot by regimes and authorities like the rest of the bureaucratic detritus that makes up this image.  From Leith he was sent to an internment camp 0n the Isle of Man.


Here is the suitably dreary scene of rooftops from his window there.  He also painted portraits of his fellow detainees such as Fred Uhlman, and these easily prove his talent in a traditional artistic sense.  (It is always a question that lurks in the back of my mind with artists who have shunned the realism – can they actually draw? Good to know).  He was released from the camp after 18 months and went to London for a while, where he resumed his collages, seemingly fixated on British sweets – Quality Street (below) and Basset’s in particular are given starring roles in their eponymous pictures.


There are also ‘assemblages’ that are almost sculptural; gnarled tree roots protrude from the canvas, while half of a smashed glass object is presented as a terrifying flower, petal-shards threatening to reach out and cut you.

Suddenly Schwitters is not alone; he appears alongside Paul Nash, Barbara Hepworth, Naum Gabo in an attempt to recreate the company he kept when exhibited in the touring show, New Movements in Art in 1942.  The influence is clear in the subsequent glass cases full of what the Tate terms ‘hand-held’ sculptures; these look like small working models of Nash-style megaliths, somewhere between the natural forms of pebble or flint and the man-made outlines of industrial machines.  Others, such as ‘Mother and Egg’ are clearly Hepworth-inspired, though painted in bright primary colours.


His move to Cumbria inspired a delight in the landscape that had not been kindled since he had left the Norwegian fjords.  Unable to kick his frugal habit of using waste paper to  create art, these strips from envelopes and magazines now represented pine trees (above), strata of rock or ripples of water.  And no modernist pride prevented him from returning to pure landscape painting and portraiture in oils to record his adopted home, friends and patrons, and as studies for abstract compositions.

It was at this point that the gallery attendants began to round us up.  I was chased through the last few rooms of bizarre installations, uncomprehending.  The booklet tells me they are new works commissioned ‘in response to the history and legacy of Kurt Schwitters’.  I cannot comment.

Pre-Raphaelite adventures continued…

Last night, in the most recent chapter of my own personal Pre-Raphaelite season, I visited the Wandsworth Museum again to see the screening of a short film produced by Ken Russell for the BBC in 1961.  It starred Mrs Wilhelmina Stirling, sister of the painter Evelyn de Morgan, showing visitors around her house – Old Battersea House, looking like an idyllic country retreat (where is this? it is not the Battersea I know…) – where she had collected the paintings of her sister and the ceramics of her brother-in-law which are now exhibited at the Museum.  Mrs Stirling, aged 96, appeared in a white fur hat, strings of pearls around her neck, and generous folds of white lace at her cuffs; she began to recount with glee tales of the ghosts with whom she shared her home.  Recalled to the true purpose of the interview, she told of the young Evelyn making such a mess in the nursery with her paints that water was banned; young Evelyn stole water from the dolls’ tea party.  Eventually she made it to the Slade and so came into being the porcelain ladies and diaphanous fairies who represent her myths and morals, dreams and realities… We left Wilhelmina, however, seated in all her dated finery before a typewriter – sole acknowledgement of modernity in a house lit by oil lamps – zealously punching out a follow-up to her 37th book, ‘Ghosts Vivisected’.

I did see the Pre-Raphaelite exhibition at Tate Britain this week too.  I took three hours to get round 7 rooms – a record exhibition-viewing time for me!  Hunger and tired feet were forgotten thanks to the splendid company and the splendid paintings.  Admittedly, there was no discernible curatorial ‘argument’ and the themes assigned to each room were decidedly arbitrary (a clearly secular portrait in the room entitled ‘Salvation’?  A beautiful, transcendental, but clearly unpopulated Scottish landscape by Millais in a room dedicated to ‘Mythology’??) – but taken as a blockbuster survey of the Pre-Raphaelites it was a winner.  Note: to be seen with girls in a reasonably romantic frame of mind.  The tragic love story of ‘The Huguenot’ and other such tales of chivalry, passion and despair will then make you sigh with an indefinable emotion – to the extent that I almost missed lunch.  A total aberration.