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).

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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.

Auerbach

Watercolours Explored at the Fitzwilliam Museum

The Fitzwilliam’s recent exhibition, ‘Watercolour: Elements of Nature’, is a concise tour de force, presenting a medium that while often subtle is at its best spectacularly beautiful.  With works drawn from the Fitzwilliam’s own collection, the show traces the history of watercolour from the 16th century to the present day, at the same time showing its vast technical range and adaptability.

Nicholas-Hilliard-1547-1619-Henry-Percy-9th-Earl-of-Northumberland-c.1595-299x250At one extreme are miniatures, with examples by Nicholas Hilliard (‘Henry Percy, 9th Earl of Northumberland’, c.1595, above) and Isaac Oliver, the watercolour portraits painted onto ivory or vellum with brushes of only a hair’s breadth.  Plants were studied with  similar precision; a Magnolia painted on vellum (1811, below right) by the famed botanical painter, Pierre-Joseph Redoute, looks so immaculate it is difficult to discern any brushstroke at all. Gum arabic was frequently mixed with the paint to give a glossier and more transparent effect as well as heightening the intensity of the colours.

Pierre-Joseph-Redouté 1811 Magnolia macrophylla-1811 vellum

It was in the 18th and 19th centuries that watercolour reached its peak.  Alexander Cozens’s paintings illustrate his radical ‘blot technique’ by which he encouraged his students to create landscape compositions from the imagination by starting with a blot of ink or watercolour (earning him the nickname ‘Mr Dingy Digit’!). This echoed a move away from the rigidly topographical towards ideas of the ‘sublime’ and Romanticism, which became fashionable in art and landscape design in the late 18th century.

1131299John White Abbott, a pupil of Francis Towne (the stunning ‘The Source of the Arveyron’, 1781, was shown at the recent Tate Watercolours exhibition), shows the influence of his master in his use of pen and ink outlines with a thin colour wash, for instance in ‘Trees at Peamore Park, Exeter’, 1799 (left), which flattens the forms making them both decorative and slightly ethereal.

Cornelius-Varley-Three-studies-of-Mount-Snowdon-c.1805Cornelius Varley’s ‘Three Studies of Mount Snowdon’ of c.1805 (right) shows even looser and more experimental brushwork. Designed as a sketch and therefore not comparable to the finished pieces next to which it hangs, it is nonetheless fascinating to see the artist playing with watercolour’s unique capacity for the graduation of colour tones.

Peter De Wint is an artist I knew little about, but who, along with David Cox, was one of the great English watercolorists. Examples of both artists’ work are chosen to show their use of variously textured papers – Cox used ‘Scotch’ wrapping paper for its rough texture and dark flecks – and paint used on a dry brush, diluted or with gum arabic, to achieve different results that bring alive the contrasts within their landscapes (Peter De Wint, ‘Yorkshire Fells, c.1812, watercolour with gum arabic, below).

Yorkshire-fells, c.1812, wc with gum arabic, Peter de Wint

I have always loved John Sell Cotman, whose style I associated with that of Francis Towne; here some very different works are picked out in which he uses a thickening agent to create much more intense colours than the typical pale washes of ‘A Shady Pool’ or even ‘Dolgelly’ (1804-5, below top).  ‘Postwick Grove’ (c.1835-40, below bottom) and ‘Bass Rock’ both use a deep turquoise shade to turn the pallid idyll of an English afternoon sky into a vivid, dusky, almost mystical firmament.

Cotman-Dolgelly 1804-5

Postwick-Grove, c.1835-40, wc, Cotman

Several artist focus closely – like the earlier botanical painters – on the tiny details of nature; William Dyce’s ‘A Landscape Study of Rocks and Grasses’ is as 1132996immaculately observed as Durer’s famous ‘Great Piece of Turf’ (1503) while Ruskin’s ‘In the Pass of Killiecrankie’ (1857) uses watercolour with a more opaque bodycolour on board to evoke the rocky banks of a Scottish burn – every minute crack of granite and frond of heather is extolled in paint. 7.-The-Magic-Apple-Tree c.1830Samuel Palmer also mixes his paint with gum arabic or similar medium in ‘The Magic Apple Tree’ (c.1830, left), using this alongside Indian ink to create vivid colours that achieve a depth, solidity and substance at the centre where the apples cluster.  Palmer was a follower of William Blake whose visionary subjects and technical experimentation he inherited, standing apart from the mainstream British landscape watercolour tradition. John Linnell, who introduced Palmer and Blake, is also featured, though his lovely ‘Sunset’ (1812) is without the strange otherworldliness conjured by his colleagues.

Shakespeare-Cliff, Dover, c.1825, wc, Turner

Then of course there is Turner, master of the watercolour.  Here there is only ‘Shakespeare Cliff, Dover’ (c.1825, above) to represent him – though an excellent choice to show how his twin interests in the effects of nature and the use of watercolour as a medium sometimes resulted in almost abstract, highly expressionistic compositions that were well ahead of his time. (There was, however, an room adjacent dedicated to the Ruskin bequest of Turner watercolours, full of exquisite examples such as ‘Brunnen, Lake Lucerne in the Distance’ 1841-3, ‘Orleans, Twilight’, c.1826-31, and ‘Venice from the Lagoon’, c.1840).Giudecca, 1913, wc over graphite Sargent

 

Appropriate then that he should immediately precede the French and English Impressionist and Post-Imp watercolorists.  This last, ‘modern’, section of the exhibition is disparate – but understandably so, as art diverged in the late 19th and early 20th century into so many different movements.  And it doesn’t matter given the objective of this show – rather, considering that it represents the Fitzwilliam’s own collection, is says a lot for the eye the purchaser and the calibre of bequests – for each work selected illustrates an outstanding mastery of the medium, each in an entirely different style running the gamut from fluid washes of sunlight or mist made solid through to carefully composed still lifes emerging from a void of white paper. (John Singer Sargent, ‘Giudecca’, 1913, above; Whistler, ‘Grey and Silver, North Sea’, c.1884, below).

Grey and Silver, North Sea, c.1884, wc, Whistler

Pissarro’s landscape studies of Eragny and Gisors in springtime sing with limpid colour redolent of sunlight after rain; Signac’s Mediterranean scenes of boats in harbour place colour in careful harmony, a light-handed lesson in Chevreul’s theories; Cezanne’s ‘Still Life – Flowers in a Jar’ (c.1890, below left) uses pale tints of watery colour to outline the skeleton of his composition, leaving the bare space to speak of volumes.

8.-Still-life-flowers-in-a-jar c.1890Philip Wilson Steer, a leading British Impressionist and founder of the New English Art Club, now out of fashion and usually overlooked, is represented by a loose watercolour sketch, ‘Chalk Pits, Painswick’ (1915) – a short reprieve from his war work as an artist with the Royal Navy. British Modernism is represented by Paul Nash’s ‘Monster Field Studies’ – surreal, anthropomorphic postwar depictions of the ancient landscape of southern England – and by David Jones’ intricate yet ephemeral interior ‘The Shepherdess’ (1930); the contemporary finale by a lone Barbara Rae abstract that looked a bit lost by the door.  I had peered in at every painting, initially interested in the technique, then transfixed by its small, beautiful, unknowable world; an hour later I had reached the far end of the room and left with energy and inspiration.

Barbara Hepworth at Tate Britain

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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 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T06676

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 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T03131

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.

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‘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’.

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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.

Kenneth Clark: Directing Modern British Art

Rodin-Eve-1881Kenneth Clark undoubtedly holds an important place in the development of British art in the twentieth century. There have been plenty of opportunities to admire the work of those artists he supported and encouraged – especially since many of them went on to become official war artists during the Second World War (Clark being in charge of the War Artists Advisory Committee, with an empty National Gallery at his disposal to show their work).  However, the idea of an exhibition devoted to a modern patron and collector was new to me; would this approach work, or would the eclectic taste and the vagaries of life of its protagonist result in a rather loosely related collection of art?

Seurat-The Forest at Pontaubert-1881

Eclectic it certainly seemed throughout the first two rooms indicating his early influences and his personal collection, before becoming more focused in the rooms dedicated to his patronage of a distinct circle of modern British artists.  However, the veritable cabinet of curiosities representing his personal collection was perhaps the most interesting – in its sense of rifling through the back rooms of an auction house and coming upon a treasure trove of disparate yet often exquisite works of art.  There were illuminated manuscripts, pub sign illustrations, Coptic textiles, and a design by Larionov for Stravinsky’s ‘The Fox’; there were numerous sketches by Cezanne, a Seurat so beautifully simple as to be almost abstract (‘The Forest at Pontaubert’, 1881, right), and a Rodin sculpture of Eve (1881, above left), these rubbing shoulders with a C17th Madonna and Child in oil on a jagged block of quartz, a ghostly unfinished portrait by Reynolds, and a brightly glazed Luca della Robbia frieze.

Henry Moore recumbent figure 1938

What really impresses itself over the course of the three rooms exploring Clark’s patronage and war art commissions is the extent to which by these methods he effectively dictated the course of modern British art.  There is a certain era – broadly the 1930s-1940s – which is defined aesthetically by the art of his proteges: John Piper, Paul Nash, Graham Sutherland, and Henry Moore (‘Recumbent Figure’, 1938, above).  Perhaps Ben Nicholson should be included in the roll call too;  Clark did own one ‘white painting’ by Nicholson but was generally opposed to total abstraction, preferring a clear inspiration from nature.  They are still considered as a group today – Clark’s ‘New Romantics’ recently dubbed ‘Romantic Moderns’ by Alexandra Harris – and this is largely due it seems to the authoritative position, generous support and relentless PR of Kenneth Clark.

Nude 1941 by Victor Pasmore 1908-1998Beyond the famous shelter drawings of Moore and the sombre, moonlit ruined architecture of Piper, a good number of lesser known works are on show too.  The Euston School in particular are rarely shown in such quantity and stand up well against their contemporaries of the Bloomsbury group and New Romantics as examples of Clark’s early patronage.  Victor Pasmore I would never have recognised; having seen only his later abstract work, the deep colours and blurred edges of ‘the Red Tablecloth’ (1936) or his ‘Nude’ (1941, left) which has all the frank nakedness of a Freud or Saville rather than the timeless classicism of the Nude – which even Sickert BenUri3-217x300upheld despite the squalor of his Camden bedsits – were a revelation.  William Coldstream’s ‘Mrs Auden’ (1936-7, right) had an equally immediate presence, though subdued in colour, the features delineated with a lightness that conveys the pale fragility of the old woman herself.

Clark was also keen to revive the quintessentially British medium of watercolour, as demonstrated by David Jones, Frances Hodgkins and the Nash brothers.  Watercolour was encouraged by the WAAC; Paul Nash produced ‘Bomber in the Corn’ (1940, below), an idyllic scene of the English countryside, a pink sunset seeping across its horizon, in which the crumpled metal of the crashed plane – were it not for the painted cross – could almost be mistaken for a picturesque tree stumps or derelict cattle pens.

Bomber in the Corn 1940 by Paul Nash 1889-1946At the end of the room, full of large, powerful images such as Nash’s ‘Battle of Britain’ and Sutherland’s ‘Devastation’ of 1941, are a collection of pale pastel-coloured paintings of ethereal, waif-like figures.  These are by Mary Kessell, one of only three women to be commissioned as a war artist, who travelled to Germany in the immediate aftermath of the war, as the concentration camps were closed down, to document the refugees (‘Refugees’, 1945, below right).  Kessell isolates the figures, briefly sketched in in a thin wash, painting around them with a impenetrable mist of opaque pigment that cuts them off from any background context, their identity obscured and their refugee status rendered visually.(c) IWM (Imperial War Museums); Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

In the end Clark was best known to me – and probably to many others – for his television series ‘Civilisation’.  The final rooms are an odd mixture after the force and focus of the War Commissions display; they tail off into an epilogue of TV clips, and an assortment of objects from Saltwood Castle where, from 1953, Clark mixed ancient and modern with effortless style – an effect difficult to achieve in a gallery, and which might have been better unattempted.  Still, the exhibition certainly achieves its principal objective, illustrating the pivotal role that Kenneth Clark played in 20th Century British art, and offers some lesser-known artists a well-deserved place in the limelight too.