8th Hippodrome Silent Film Festival, Bo’ness

Directed by Alison Strauss, 8th annual Hippodrome Silent Film Festival was full of discoveries and exceptional performances- in my experience, the best year yet!  The convergence of international musical talent, new restorations and previously unseen films, presented under the heavenly dome of Scotland’s oldest cinema make Hippfest a highly anticipated and unique event, worth clearing your calendar for.  There is nothing quite like the live Silent era experience, bringing reinterpretation of cinema at its most ground-breaking and innovative to contemporary audiences.  The Hippfest celebration of music and movies in a relaxed, welcoming atmosphere is a restorative breath of fresh air. I always come away feeling connected to an expanded world of human creativity, experience and perception. This isn’t just about a film nerd finding her tribe, but the thrill of the new, the magic that happens when the right accompanist(s) align with the vision of a film and its emotional centre, responding to it in real time. You don’t need a degree in film studies to revel in it.  This is where Silent Film accompaniment comes into its own, not as a historical curio, but as a living Artform transforming how and what we see, not just inside the cinema but in the wider world. Being part of that flow of energy between the filmmaker(s), the stories projected on screen, accompanying musicians and fellow audience members is something very special that can’t be replicated anywhere else in the digital world.

Silent comedian Billie Ritchie

Among this year’s discoveries was Silent comedian Billie Ritchie. Who knew that this Glasgow born international star pre-dated Chaplin as “The man Who Makes the World Laugh”, appearing in 70 Hollywood productions from 1914 to 1920. Trevor Griffiths, author of the soon to be released Early Cinema in Scotland, delivered an intriguing introduction to Ritchie’s work in his Friday afternoon talk, prompting the question of how and what enables an artist to remain in public consciousness. With Forrester Pyke accompanying on piano, the audience were treated to tantalising snippets of surviving film, revealing Ritchie’s anarchic brand of humour. These glimpses left me wanting to see more and wondering where in the world Ritchie’s many lost works might be uncovered. There is certainly more work to be done in researching, celebrating and bringing Billie Ritchie home as an artist in the public imagination.

Ernst Lubitsch’s The Student Prince in Old Hiedelberg (1927), starring Ramon Novarro and Norma Shearer.

The Hippfest Friday Night Gala is always buzzing, with people getting into the 1920’s party spirit. Fancy dress, pre-screening drinks, canapés and authentic live music, this year by the toe tapping Red Hot Minute Brass Band, are all part of the annual festivities. Ernst Lubitsch’s The Student Prince in Old Hiedelberg (1927), starring Ramon Novarro and Norma Shearer was accompanied by Neil Brand on piano, delivering the perfect balance of charm, romance and drama. Hugely popular on its release, the story of an inexperienced, dashing crown prince falling in love with an honest barmaid was (and clearly still is) an appealing leveller. Brand’s music sensitively conveyed this human baseline of love, loss and regret. His enthusiastic presentation of the preceding archival short and main feature heightened the sense of occasion. Brand is a consummate showman with a broad reach, a passionate advocate for Silent Film and the expressive role of music in Cinema, seen in his television series and live performances. He always brings context to Silent Film as art and entertainment, the perfect match for Lubitsch’s highly accomplished and crowd-pleasing film.

Brand provided equally sparkling accompaniment for the Saturday morning Jeely Jar Double Bill, continuing the tradition started by the Hippodrome’s original proprietor Louis Dickson of discounted cinema tickets in exchange for empty glass jars. (In 2018, 2 for 1 tickets with a clean jam jar and lid, with the jars used for local honey). At the heart of both films are feisty, irrepressible and independent young women in the making, something still rarely seen in mainstream films and popular culture in the 21st Century. Dorothy Devore stars in the 22 min comedy of errors Saving Sister Susie (1921), as a younger sister forced to dress as a child by her mother, so that her older sibling can find a fiancée. Devore plays a character who is completely forthright and a free spirit – not at all the model of demure, feminine passivity expected by her Mother’s late Nineteenth Century generation.  In The Kid Reporter (1924, 20 mins) four and a half year old Baby Peggy plays an expert stenographer, crime solving sleuth and budding editor in chief! In his introduction Neil Brand revealed that Baby Peggy, who later became a reporter and critic, is still alive, well and living in LA where he interviewed her.

Baby Peggy in The Kid Reporter (1924)

I have a low tolerance for cuteness, especially of the saccharine, Hollywood studio system variety, but Baby Peggy is something else in this film- four and a half going on forty in terms of her sharp expressions of thought and amazing execution of comic setups. Dressing like a professional male reporter and declaring that “if you want something done there is only one woman!”, she has real presence and personality on screen, convincingly carrying the film. The Kid Reporter was unexpectedly funny, progressive and contradictory in its depiction of a child/woman very competently in charge. Although the Jeely Jar Double Bill is comedy pitched for children/ families, there’s still plenty for adults to enjoy too. Seeing Baby Peggy in a film built entirely around her reveals the shortcomings of our own “liberated” age, where it wouldn’t be enough for her to be an intelligent girl with comic timing. Ironically the field of reference in the proceeding age of technicolour has progressively shrunk, fenced in by pink or blue- tinted expectations, which is what makes Baby Peggy’s sassy self- determination so refreshing! I can’t think of an equivalent character, certainly not one that young, in film or TV today.

Striving /Fen Dou (1932)

Initiating international musical collaborations and cultural partnerships is one of Hippfest’s great strengths, something that can only be created and sustained by proactive development and continuity of funding. The European Premiere of Striving /Fen Dou (1932) a new restoration from the China Archive accompanied by Stephen Horne (Piano, flute, accordion, melody harp) and Frank Bockius (Percussion) is a brilliant example of inspired international collaboration. Supported by the Confucius Institute for Scotland and the University of Edinburgh, this screening combined interpretative skill and musical transcendence, crossing multiple borders. Directed by Shi Dongshan, the story of a young woman, Swallow (played by 16-year-old Chen Yanyan) and her struggle to find happiness is a loyal work of Nationalist propaganda, humanised by musical interpretation in this live performance. Made during a time of internal political turmoil and escalating conflict with Japan, Striving was clearly intended to carry the moral message of virtue and nobility in serving the nation. The pairing at this screening of a BFI National archive short film newsreel, rallying young men in Trafalgar Square to serve their country, provided an interesting perspective on propaganda and nationalism on home soil. The Hippfest tradition of pairing archival shorts with features often provoke important questions about our relationship with history, film, collective memory and current affairs. These archival films can sometimes be just a minute long, but they provide an important pause and a lens for the feature, with the audience free to make their own connections. The perceptive distance between cultures, the time that the film was made and our own effectively shrinks, whilst the emotional field of reference expands due to the finest musical accompaniment.

Whenever I have seen Stephen Horne and Frank Bockius accompany Silent Film I’ve been floored by their vitality, incredible musicianship, understanding of film as human expression and ability to communicate with audiences.  The energy they create in performance is pure, intuitive and totally transports the viewer, changing the way you watch, perceive and appreciate films of any period. They always enhance and elevate the films they are paired with based on respect, trust and total commitment to serving the film. Taking your cues from the film happens on many levels and both musicians dig deep. They allow the full range of their instruments, capabilities as soloists and a duo, to channel the film in such a unified way that the audience is carried away, beyond and within themselves. Seeing a film for the first time accompanied by Horne and Bockius is the best introduction you could possibly hope for in Cinema. They’re not serving their egos as performers, but the story, what is projected thematically on screen and the connective function of music, taking the art of Silent Film accompaniment to an entirely new level.  With Striving they effectively placed the audience in the emotional centre of the action.  Whilst this might sound very cerebral, there’s also a physical/ haptic aspect in performance that translates directly to the viewer. We experience the film spatially-like virtual reality, but in more dimensions than just three! It’s the difference between applying sound effects or a musical soundtrack over a film and highly skilled, unconscious interpretation through the nervous system- what we are all essentially hardwired for and what both artists resoundingly deliver.

Stephen Horne’s use of the interior workings of the piano, harnessing its expressive range, creates a sense of gravity, understanding and tension. He is able to ground the audience; physically, psychologically and emotionally. The muffled, rumbling lower register tension of a fight taking place upstairs, or the scraped wires of a slap/ fingernail scratch across the face transform the piano into physically articulate percussion. However, it’s the sonic recognition of what’s happening beneath the surface, in the heart and mind of a scene, that Horne really excels at. The musical suggestion of thought, attitude, character, motivation and feeling, powerful use of sound and silence, enables the audience to inhabit the world of the film and empathically project themselves into it. You don’t achieve that depth of experience with typical thematic manipulation, simply triggering a cause and effect emotive response.

Percussion is often used with all the subtlety of a hammer to the knee reflex in mainstream Cinema scoring, seeing Frank Bockius perform it becomes something else entirely. The human body becomes the percussive, resonant instrument of awareness, not just driving the pace of the action on screen but reimagining it. Arms, elbows, palms and fingertips, brushes, rods, sticks and the most unexpectedly delicate use of cymbals, extend the reach and depth of sound. We can experience foreboding, an abstract concept, as a reality, part of the wider story arc and as an emotional space the main character is living in, before we see/ are shown the abusive relationship between adoptive father and daughter. Crucially- we feel it first, and this guides our human response to the unfolding drama, providing the perfect counterfoil to the rather didactic intertitles and time/ culturally specific political agenda. The musical improvisation aligns with the pure visual storytelling of Silent Film and the art of cinematography, which are all about show don’t tell.

In the hands of these two musicians the clash of cymbals and major key striving of the piano isn’t a nationalistic celebration, but one of life itself. With years of experience and refined technique they can capture with the lightest touch, the trembling hesitation, shifting emotion and burgeoning awareness of two young lovers, or the furious trauma of war, branded “glorious” by the intertitles, sonically subverted. In moments of intimacy the alignment of both musicians is with the painted light of cinematography, the pin point illumination in the eyes of actors, becoming the projected light of Film and the human spirit. There is no orchestra or editing, yet we experience on a symphonic scale, visceral sounds of cannon fire and reverberating bullets that blister the skin of the drums/ viewer, while the piano shudders like a conductive pool of water on the battlefield at our feet. Anyone who imagines (and many people do) that Silent Film accompaniment is simply decoratively tinkling the ivories along to aged memory would have that myth exploded here. The connection is very powerfully made between the seemingly distant world of China circa 1932 and our own. Silent Film is the original art of global communication. It’s no wonder that contemporary filmmakers are increasingly being drawn to it to hone their craft.

Franz Osten’s Shiraz, A Romance of India (1928)

Another highlight of my Hippfest weekend was John Sweeney’s rapturous interpretation of Franz Osten’s Shiraz, A Romance of India (1928), a British-Indian-German co production, recently restored by the BFI. With an entirely Indian cast, including Himansu Rai, Enkashi Rama Rao Charu Roy, Seeta Devi and shot on location using natural light, this is a beautiful film and an epic love story. The tale of how the Taj Mahal came to be built has all the drama and intrigue of a Shakespearean tragedy, with the purity and agony of love at the heart of the film. John Sweeney’s highly sensitive lyricism as a pianist was the perfect accompaniment, seamlessly and magically morphing the piano into a sitar. The combination of rhythms and accents from Classical Indian music with the expressive capabilities of the piano, the ultimate musical embodiment of Western Romanticism, was simply stunning. Like an alchemist, Sweeney melded pinnacles of artistic expression from both cultures into gold, responding to the film and its themes with profound empathy. It was music fallen naturally from the stars, capturing human aspiration and adoration in full alignment with the architecture.

The love triangle between Selima, a lost princess raised from childhood with her adoptive brother Shiraz and the Emperor Shah Jehan is a complex one of class, fate, sacrifice and unrequited love. Ultimately it is Shiraz’s love and humility, that builds the monument and is the foundation of the film, rather than a story of two star crossed lovers finding each other. Crucially the piano dignifies and illuminates the design so that we see the inner trajectory of the devotional as a mirror- “not stone and mortar, but faith and longing”. When Shiraz attends the palace gate, leaning against a pillar, a single hand on the piano communicates his loneliness and the weight of sorrow he’s carrying as he returns to catch glimpses of Selima’s happiness, gradually losing his sight. Musical shimmers of light communicate the selfless acceptance of Selima not being his, it’s the blindness and helplessness of unrequited love.  What Sweeney’s understated accompaniment allows us to feel is the integrity of Shiraz’s soul. Glimmers of sunshine are played with supreme gentleness on the piano, befitting the invisibly raw, vulnerable state of a character who has given his whole self to a woman who can only love him as a brother. That emotive distance between Shiraz and his beloved is achingly acute in Sweeney’s music, because like the character he doesn’t announce these moments of passion and loss, instead they emerge out of the unconscious timbre of the music and into heightened awareness. Like Shiraz handing the amulet back to Selima, Sweeney passes the sonic core of the film to the audience and what a precious, heartfelt gift it is. This performance had me in tears, because it tapped into a baseline of experience and memory in such a humane way. Although the premiere of the BFI restoration of Shiraz at the 2017 London Film Festival with a commissioned score by Anoushka Shankar was much celebrated, you could really hope for no better live accompaniment to this heartbreakingly exquisite film than John Sweeney on piano.

Saturday night’s magnificent Silent Horror double bill featured the great Lon Chaney in The Penalty (1920), accompanied by a newly commissioned Hippfest score from Graeme Stephen (guitar) & Pete Harvey (cello). This was followed by the riotously bizarre Seven Footprints to Satan (1929), directed by Benjamin Christensen (Häxan), brilliantly accompanied by Jane Gardner (piano) and Roddy Long (violin).

I must confess that I have  (to date) a difficult relationship with newly commissioned scores for Silent Film, doubly so at a Silent festival where they are premiered alongside the work of musicians whose extensive experience and career focus is Silent accompaniment. The commissioned musicians chosen are usually fantastic in their own right and no doubt bring their existing followers to a screening, however the biggest pitfall for musicians doing Silents is this isn’t a concert or a music festival. It isn’t enough to simply get up there and do what you already know how to- the film is the thing you’re serving, not yourself or your fans. In this context it’s rare that a non-specialist musician (or musicians), however fashionable or acclaimed in their own genre, don’t fall short. To be fair, my expectations in a Hippfest context are incredibly high and I know that often, the actual time allowable for musical commissions is short. However, entering the medium of film and pushing the boat out musically are a state of mind, independent of time. Accompanying Silent film demands nothing less than imagination, if a musician isn’t engaged with theirs and with the film then the audience won’t be either. 

The Penalty (1920) starring Lon Chaney

The Penalty is a cracking film, full of psychological twists, ambiguities and moral dilemmas, it deals with the light and dark of the soul, the nature of creation, destruction and what makes a human being. Lon Chaney is “an evil mask of a great soul” and delivers a compelling, dynamic performance as the crippled, sadistic underworld boss “Blizzard”. There’s distilled malevolence, a fallen angel, an injured child and wounded humanity in his character. He’s a man physically and mentally crippled by greed, revenge, envy and loss. The pairing of classical guitar and cello was a missed opportunity in this new commission, not due to the instrumentation but the safe, concert-like quality of it, which outside the cinema wouldn’t be a criticism. Where this film takes you visually, thematically and psychologically isn’t congruent for example, with repetitively comforting guitar strumming while a violent act is committed- unless you’re being ironic, and my guts, together with the rest of the score, tells me it wasn’t. If you’re going to score for guitar and cello, a full exploration of both instruments, like the human content, is an imperative with this film. This doesn’t mean extreme sound necessarily, but giving the underutilised cello its voice back, taking your guitar into uncharted territory and getting under the skin of your audience. Beautifully played sound just isn’t enough on a cinema stage if it fails to connect with the nature of the characters and story. We all read films differently, but there are central themes in The Penalty that are unmissable for an accompanist, aligned with what the film shows us visually about ourselves as human beings. It’s this emotional tonality and complexity of human behaviour that Graeme Stephen’s doesn’t seem to pick up on. For me that’s what makes this film so rich and fascinating, even with a cop out ending of evil explained away by science. Whilst I thoroughly enjoyed the film and the musical performance, I wasn’t convinced by them being brought together. The scoring of guitar and cello lacked imagination and there were times when I wondered whether we were watching the same film, Stephen’s score for Nosferatu had a similar effect. Having these thoughts about the music whilst watching the film pulls you out of it to some extent, which is a shame considering such promising material, however Chaney’s marvel of twisted humanity and the visual exploration of themes kept pulling me back in. It could have been an amazing, transformative live performance, but there wasn’t a sense of the musicians becoming an essential part of the film and freeing themselves in the process.

Seven Footprints to Satan (1929)

In contrast Seven Footprints to Satan (1929) totally embraced the vision on screen, faithfully serving the “Carry On Devil Worship crossed with The Rocky Horror Picture Show” and Lynchian Twin Peaks spirit of the film. Starring Thelma Todd, Crighton Hale and Sheldon Lewis the story begins in familiar, late 20’s high society territory and then explodes it completely. Gardner and Long’s harmonic, rhythmic and tonal descent into escalating weirdness was genius! Together they captured the humour and dream-like chaos of bizarre characters and scenarios encountered by a society couple, abducted and imprisoned in a house belonging to the Devil. As David Cairns describes in his Hippfest film notes, the “succession of thugs, dwarfs, fiendish orientals, sinister cripples, phony gorillas, ludicrous grotesques and exotic women, all entering and exiting through secret panels, usually carrying pistols” “and uttering baffling warnings, plays like a Fu Manchu movie through an opium haze.” The transference of sound between piano and electronic keyboard heightened the sense of moving into another realm and Long’s inventive inflections on the violin conveyed an increasingly altered state of reality using all parts of the bow. The Surreal visual/ musical journey from fiery gypsy rhythms and gentile melody to sonically warped time and space was magnificently paced with the accelerating action. Seven Footprints to Satan has all the makings of a cult classic, aided by Gardner and Long who were clearly having as much fun as the audience. Their energy in performance was totally infectious and the audience buzzing from the laugh out loud, audacious and wildly entertaining marriage of sound and image. This late-night Horror was an absolute joy and the most fun I’ve had at the cinema in a long time!  It would definitely make an outstanding repeat screening in any Film House (or mansion) and would be the perfect basis for event cinema.

Underground (1928) directed by Anthony Asquith,  British Film Institute

I’m always a bit sad when Sunday night comes around at Hippfest, a feeling hapilly dispelled by the closing night gala screening. This year Anthony Asquith’s Underground (1928) starring Brian Aherne, Elissa Landi, Cyril McLaglen and Norah Baring, accompanied by Stephen Horne (piano, accordion, flute) and Frank Bockius (percussion) positively raised the roof, closing the festival superbly.  The lives of four working class Londoners are tragically entwined in this unexpectedly gorgeous and darkly emotive film, restored by the BFI National Archive. I was especially glad to have seen it for the first time on the Hippodrome big screen with such adept accompaniment. What struck me visually was Stanley Rodwell’s cinematography, the way shadow play is used imaginatively in the film, from the illuminated bustle and ceaseless movement of the city, to projections of will and desire in the confined space of an underground stairwell. (Rodwell also shot Shooting Stars (1928) and A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929) with Asquith.) It’s an interesting departure from the realist tradition of British cinema and brings a more European, expressionistic sensibility to the screen, minus extreme stylistic angularity.  Emotionally it’s permissible intimacy British style, with shadows merging into a surrendering embrace. The prospective lovers are brought closer together than they are physically. We see (and hear) what is unsaid in that moment; what one character is feeling, or projecting onto another. This typically constrained passion makes the flip side of jealousy and revenge an interesting driver in the story.

Another driver is the city, synonymous with the underground itself, sensed and felt in Bockius’s handling of percussion, always moving through a tunnel of darkness towards light. In the opening scenes we see the underground as a melting pot of life, with gestures, glances and exchanges between passengers beautifully animated by sound and the musical conversation flowing just as naturally in collaboration. There’s tremendous sensitivity in the unfolding interpretation of relationships at the heart of the story. For example, Nell’s gradual discovery of Bert’s deceit expands as a musical question with suspicion circling in her mind like the turn of the brush in Bockius’s hand. This growing awareness of the vengeful web Bert has woven around Nell, Kate and Bill is mirrored in Stephen Horne’s gently tentative, pressing shift in awareness on piano. This isn’t a case of simply illustrating an actor’s expression but enables the audience to feel the thought process and emotional state behind it in anticipation. The sound element encourages the audience to drive the realisation and consequent action forward in their own minds. It’s the beauty of accompaniment which creeps up on you in unexpected ways, imaginatively tapping into the motivation and internal movement of a scene.

When Kate discovers that Bert has betrayed her and her mind starts to unravel, the accordion breathes in this emptiness and counter clockwise movement on the skin of the drum amplifies the conflict in her imaginative orbit, of what could or should be. Her responses like the sound of the xylophone become increasingly vulnerable and childlike. The scarf round her neck which she bought to impress Bert scratches at her throat like scraped piano wires. Then the depth of the piano confronts the audience with the refined cause of this primitive, reactive state. She is mad with love and lost herself entirely, a casualty of Bert’s vengeful desire and gross indifference. The sense of oppression in Bert’s hold over Kate becomes an image of modernity, conveyed in the towering silhouette of the power station with its smoking chimneys dwarfing her. As she runs in a frenzy of need to see him, the sequence of movement becomes a blur like a train going past, with the audience as passengers. Throughout the unfolding story, the musical accompaniment provided untold levels of insight, eclipsing time. Underground may not be a film at the forefront of public consciousness, but in the moment, through this performance it became universal. Being able to communicate in this way matters. It crosses all borders and boundaries in such an exciting, enlightening way that the energy within the audience changes, seeing the world with fresh eyes, in the living presence of a miraculous, 90-year-old film and two astonishing musicians. What a festival and what a finish!

http://www.falkirkcommunitytrust.org/venues/hippodrome/silent-cinema/default.aspx

http://www.falkirkcommunitytrust.org/venues/hippodrome/silent-cinema/docs/brochure/2018%20Festival%20Brochure.pdf

A New Era

SCOTTISH MODERN ART 1900-1950

2 December 2017 – 10 June 2018

Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh.

Charles PULSFORD (1912-89)
Three Angels, 1949
Painting, oil on board, 91.4 x 174 cm
Collection: National Galleries of Scotland
© The Estate of Charles Pulsford
Photo: John McKenzie

The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art’s latest exhibition A New Era: Scottish Modern Art 1900-1950 examines how Scottish artists “responded to the great movements of European modern art, including Fauvism, Cubism, Surrealism and Abstraction.”  Featuring over 100 works by 51 artists, drawn from public and private collections in the UK, it’s a show that shines a light on Scottish Modernism.  The bold “New Era” of Scottish Modern Art is perhaps a time when a broader range of artists are publicly recognised, less for their relativity to European “Masters” and more for what they uniquely bring to our understanding of the period and ourselves.

There are many forces past and present in art training, collecting, curation and politics which define the “most progressive” artists of this period- or any other. Even after SNGMA’s Modern Scottish Women (2015) exhibition, the overarching cultural statement of progressiveness in this show is predominantly male. In the context of a period in Scottish Art where female artists weren’t permitted to attend life class at the ECA until after 1910, (effectively barring them from elevated professional status) the representative ratio of 7 female to 44 male Scottish Modernists isn’t surprising. As early policy towards female art college staff demonstrates, you only had an artistic profession until marriage and motherhood forced you to resign. The promising careers of some female artists were also cut short by becoming widows during WWI and WWII, being the sole breadwinner and raising children on their own. When Scottish Colourists “JD Fergusson (1874-1961) and SJ Peploe (1871-1935) experienced first-hand the radical new work produced in Paris by artists such as Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse,” their position was of relative privilege aligned with professional status and gender. Leaving the country to have contact with the European Avant- Garde was pivotal in terms of how their work developed, but what interested me most in this exhibition was grappling with the nature of that liberation.

William Watson PEPLOE (1869-1933)
Orchestral: Study in Radiation, about 1915
Collection: National Galleries of Scotland, purchased 1990
Drawing, pen, brush and ink on card, 28 x 23.6 cm

Rapid industrialisation, the carnage of two World Wars and the collapse of Western civilization were potent catalysts for the radical art movements of the early 20th Century. Too often the canonical roll call of famous creative male geniuses, with talent delivered from on high, clouds perception of how vital an act of survival, resistance and change Art can be. It’s true that the radicalism of Scottish Modernists springs from a more conservative foundation than that found in Paris in the early 20th Century. William Watson Peploe’s Orchestral: Study in Radiation (c.1915 Pen, brush and ink on card, 28 x 23.6cm Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh: Purchased 1990) springs to mind, with its explosive waves of sound and angular shards of beautifully composed beige and black. It infused with manners, despite the obvious energy Peploe celebrates.

John Duncan Fergusson (1874-1961)
Étude de Rhythme, 1910
Oil on board, 60.9 x 49.9cm
Collection: The Fergusson Gallery, Perth & Kinross Council: Presented by the J. D. Fergusson Art Foundation 1991
The conservation of this work has been supported by the J. D. Fergusson Art Foundation
© The Fergusson Gallery, Perth & Kinross Council, Scotland

I’ve always found the label “Scottish Colourist” a very complex proposition. As a uniquely Scottish group, the implied expressive freedom and celebration of colour (on every level) feels muted. To these contemporary, Antipodean eyes, the self-conscious, reductive pink fleshiness of JD Fergusson’s nudes feel strangely at odds with the idea of unbridled female sexuality he is often celebrated for. He is above all true to himself, seen in the emboldened black lines and heightened abstraction of Étude Rhythm (1910, Oil on board, 60.9 x 49.9cm The Fergusson Gallery, Perth & Kinross Council: Presented by the J. D. Fergusson Art Foundation 1991). It’s an image of sex in terms of male dominance, form and light; a stained-glass convergence of masculine desire, heat and energy, receding to the edges of the frame in crimson, fragmented blue and green. The female form is the background locus of desire, with the male form literally thrust centre stage, curiously adopting abstraction for modesty in a moment of climatic immersion. Although a daring work for 1910 in subject matter and style, there is something maskingly self-referential about it, which holds the image in the time it was made, rather than transcending it.

One of the unexpected highlights of the show was gaining an appreciation of Fergusson’s strength of composition, founded on associations of his own making. What was so compelling wasn’t looking for the influence of French painting on his work, but seeing how Fergusson addresses his own radicalisation, emotionally, psychologically and technically, led by human relationships. The dominant Feminine in his life was his partner, pioneering dancer and choreographer Margaret Morris, seen in Éastre (Hymn to the Sun) (1924 (cast 1971) Brass, 41.8 x 22 x 22.5cm, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh: Purchased 1972). It’s a symbolic and representational work- a realisation of the Saxon Goddess of Spring and a portrait bust of Morris. Highly polished, rounded brass forms, create circular bursts of radiance and refracted light. It’s an object of love, worship and renewal, as Modern as a Brancusi sculpture and as ancient as the mythology that inspired it.

In La Terrasse Café d’ Harcourt (1908, Oil on canvas, 108.6 x 122cm Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh: On loan from a Private Collection) relationships between men and women are cast with skill and intrigue, in black silhouette, between rose pink blooms and ripening, acidic green lit tables. Standing at the centre of the composition is a young woman in a large, curved hat regarding the artist/ viewer and holding her own in the scene. Aligned with the rose at her breast is the face of a man in the background, like a mirror image of the artist. We can’t see her eyes, they are characteristically in shadow, but her stance tells us that she feels his gaze and 110 years later, so do we. The serpentine sweep of line and form draws us seductively to the heart of the painting and in that moment of connection, Fergusson creates the most exquisitely balanced composition, based on the primacy of his attraction. In painterly terms it’s faultless and as our gaze expands beyond the central protagonist, relationships between the surrounding couples begin to emerge, spinning their own narratives.

In At My Art Studio Window (1910, Oil on canvas, 157.5 x 123cm The Fergusson Gallery, Perth & Kinross Council: Presented by the J. D. Fergusson Art Foundation 1991) the female model holds the frame/ canopy aloft with a burst of yellow- green rounded foliage behind her. She is rendered as part of cyclical Nature. Fergusson’s attention is drawn to the torso, the rounded breasts and belly, accented by a crimson sway of mark extending to her thighs. It’s an interesting, veilled mark, which at first feels like reluctance to go a step too far, to paint her entire body with equal definition. The effect is a strange smear, at odds with the rest of the paint handling, but accentuating womanly fertility. Like all of Fergusson’s women, attitude through body language is the primary means of communication, rather than facial expression. Here it’s the tilt of the head beholding the artist/ viewer and the way she supports the picture plain like an internal caryatid, dominating the frame. As a professional model she’s naturally at ease with the full-frontal positioning of the body, stepping into the metaphorical light of the artist’s studio. However, there’s something essentially decorative and therefore contradictory in Fergusson’s vision of the Feminine, a pink patterned accent of desire seen in so many of his paintings, drawing the masculine eye. She is Fergusson’s type of woman and muse, but she is also cast as an undeniable force of Nature.

Conflicting forces of Nature, human nature and industrialisation are the catalyst for all artistic “isms” of the 20th Century. Stephen Gilbert’s Dog, (c.1945 Oil on paper laid on board, 71 x 51cm Private Collection) an expression of pure Zeitgeist in stark, canine form, ravaged by hunger and living on instinct. It’s a painting reminiscent of the Australian artist Albert Tucker, notably his Images of Modern Evil series, painted during the WWII blackouts in Melbourne. Base human instinct comes to the fore in the darkness and psychological onslaught of an age defined by industrial scale warfare, genocide and the atomic bomb. Merlyn Evans’ Cyclops, (early 1940s Serpentine stone, 28 x 45 x 13cm Private Collection), is a modernist manifestation of Classical mythology and collective fears. This works encapsulates the true origin of horror, a monstrous hybrid of man and industrial geometry, consuming humanity.

Eric Robertson (1887-1941)
Cartwheels, c.1920
Oil on canvas, 103 x 144cm
Collection: National Galleries of Scotland, purchased 2007
Image: Antonia Reeve

Eric Robertson (1887-1941), an artist who served in the Friends Ambulance Unit during WWI, navigates his own path through the horrors of war. Shellburst (c.1919 Oil on canvas, 71.2 x 83.8cm City Art Centre, Edinburgh Museums and Galleries: Purchased 1976) has a particularly British, Vorticist aesthetic, finding beauty and dynamism, even here on the battlefield. It is a strange, stilled painting, perhaps an exercise in self-preservation with the stylised, corkscrew auditory whirl of falling bombs overhead and the geometrical trajectory of the blast. There’s a sense of placing a template of controlled design over the annihilating violence, with the curvature of soldier’s helmets and bodies leaning into the earth for protection.  Cartwheels (Cartwheels, c.1920 Oil on canvas, 103 x 144cm Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh: Purchased 2007) depicts a group of young people enjoying a day out in a Scottish Mountain landscape, shafts of shifting light and the shorthand spin of legs animating the scene. Robertson’s protective aesthetics are akin to his wartime battlefield scene, albeit with an injection of peacetime Joy de vivre, in the eternally grounded presence of the mountain.

William MCCANCE (1894-1970)
Abstract Cat, about 1922 – 1924
Sculpture, clayslip, glazed, 9.4 x 15.2 x 8.6 cm
Collection: National Galleries of Scotland, given by Dr Margaret McCance 1992
© Margaret McCance
Photo: John McKenzie

Painter, printmaker and sculptor William McCance (1894-1970) together with fellow artist and partner Agnes Miller Parker (1895-1980) based themselves in London during the 1920’s. McCance’s sculpture Abstract Cat (c.1922-24 Clayslip, glazed, 9.4 x 15.2 x 8.6cm Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh: Presented by Dr Margaret McCance 1992) echoes Franz Marc in its claw-like curved geometry and natural feline suppleness. Using the cheapest material available and of a hand-held scale, it is an expression of potential. His series of carved lino blocks, including a study for the adjacent painting Mediterranean Hill Town, (1923, Oil on canvas, 92.1 x 61cm Dundee City Council (Dundee’s Art Galleries and Museums) give fascinating insight into his interdisciplinary practice. McCance’s Study for a Colossal Steel Head (1926 Black chalk on paper, 53.8 x 37.8cm Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh: Purchased 1988) dehumanises the traditional portrait bust, whilst the narrative of masculine sexuality in The Awakening (1925, Oil on board, 61 x 46cm Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh: Purchased 2007) is a more humane vision of self-discovery. The influence of Cubism via Picasso and Picabia is easily seen in McCance’s work. However, it’s the artist’s visual grappling with contradictory impulses and aspects of self, finding his line in an increasingly fragmented Modern world, that really speaks.

William MCCANCE (1894-1970)
Study for a Colossal Steel Head, 1926
Drawing, black chalk on paper, 53.8 x 37.8 cm
Collection: National Galleries of Scotland, purchased 1988
© Margaret McCance
Photo: John McKenzie

As “a pioneer of British Abstraction”, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham’s Upper Glacier, (1950 Oil on canvas, 39.4 x 62.9cm Courtesy of the British Council Collection) goes further, directing the Modernist gaze inside Nature in a work composed of thin washes and vibrant drawn marks. The artist’s direct experience of the Grindwald Glaciers in Switzerland is realised in shifting ice greens, blues and smoothed, interlocking forms. Barns-Graham describes the way that she was naturally led to a different way of seeing by the landscape;

“The likeness to glass transparency combined with solid, rough ridges made me wish to combine in a work all angles at once, from above, through and all round, as a bird flies, a total experience.”

Wilhelmina Barns-Graham (1912-2004)
Upper Glacier, 1950
Oil on canvas, 39.4 x 62.9cm
Collection: British Council Collection.
Purchased from the artist 1950.
© The Barns-Graham Charitable Trust

The total experience of art is also expressed in Eduardo Paolozzi’s Table Sculpture (Growth), (1949 Bronze, 83 x 60.5 x 39cm Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh: Purchased 1988). It’s the multidimensional concept of creative process, above and below everyday consciousness, pierced by thought and practical action. Hand-made tools are the legs of the table, holding the structure up and joining the unconscious layer below to what is seen or experienced above the surface. It feels like the visionary integration of traditionally separate realms of heaven and earth, transgressed by imagination in solid bronze.

Charles Pulsford’s (1912-89) Three Angels, (1949 Oil on board, 91.4 x 174cm Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh: Purchased 2012) is a particularly arresting image. It feels like standing on the post-war wreckage of the earth, with a triptych of figures, wings enfolding their bodies like sarcophagi, set against an Armageddon cadmium red sky. The central figure encompasses a trinity of circular light. A clashing palette red, green and black outlines and the sequence of figures have an assaultive quality, like Francis Bacon’s Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944) halted in petrification. As described in the accompanying exhibition text, the poet Norman MacCaig also identified the apocalyptic quality of the painting in an unpublished poem, “Three Angels (a picture) April 1952. It begins; “Three in a row and each one mad/ looking with innocence upon/ the smiling, cruel and gaily sad/their witless eyes beam down/ on struggling song and word and stone/ each bears a blinding crown…” Pulsford creates a deeply confrontational image of hope and deliverance stripped away by the harsh reality of survival post WWII. Heaven has crashed to earth and the unnerving solidity of these winged visions communicates the collective trauma. It’s an image with no national borders around it.

Edward Baird (1904-49)
Unidentified Aircraft (over Montrose), 1942
Oil on canvas, 71.1 x 91.4cm
Collection: Glasgow Life (Glasgow Museums) on behalf of Glasgow City Council: Purchased 1943.
© Graham Stephen

There’s an eerie feeling of suspension in Edward Baird’s (1904-49) Unidentified Aircraft (over Montrose), (1941-42, Oil on canvas, 71.1 x 91.4cm Glasgow Life (Glasgow Museums) on behalf of Glasgow City Council: Purchased 1943), not just in the hovering clouds or in the anticipatory, upturned gaze of the central protagonists. The church spire pointing towards the heaven and the island world of the town, connected to our foreground space by a bridge (which is also the painting) is held protectively in the mind. Bands of white and deep blue ultramarine define a moment of wilful preservation from the ongoing threat of German bombers. The unease created by the cut-off figures, decapitated and disarmed, is accentuated by a single raised hand and the head of the central figure. With the neck uncomfortably tilted back, it appears as if this were a collaged Christ from a Northern Renaissance crucifixion and simultaneously, an everyman civilian or soldier about to fall into shadow. The human subject is emotively pushed right to the edge, beneath the picture plane. This isn’t just looking up but within, a response rooted in the psychic resistance of Surrealism, not as a style, but a way of seeing and surviving. Sitting between the mouths of two rivers, the Scottish town of Montrose was targeted as a training ground for fighter pilots. However, Baird’s painting also suggests a struggle which eclipses the locality. It is the faithful, heightened reality of Surrealism that Baird employs in this image of human fear, resistance and comfort. It’s not just a scene of Montrose, but an image of the world.

William TURNBULL (1922-2012)
Untitled (aquarium), 1950
Painting, oil on canvas, 71 x 91 cm
Collection: National Galleries of Scotland
Purchased from the Henry and Sula Walton Fund with help from the Art Fund, 2014
© Estate of William Turnbull. All rights reserved, DACS 2017.
Photo: Antonia Reeve

From James Cowie’s sublime Evening Star, (c.1940-44 Oil on canvas, 137.5 x 133.4cm, Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums Collections) to the monochrome abstraction of William Turnball’s Untitled (Aquarium) (1950, Oil on canvas, National Galleries of Scotland), the exhibition offers many surprises, found in the works of known artists and in new discoveries. With many Scottish artists working outside Scotland during this turbulent period, bringing them together is a crucial step in terms of reappraisal. Rather than being cast in eternal relativity, perhaps Scottish Art and artists can finally step out of the shadows and stand where they have always been, consciously and unapologetically, on a world stage.

https://www.nationalgalleries.org/exhibition/new-era-scottish-modern-art-1900-1950

Dreamers Awake

White Cube Bermondsey, London

28 June – 17 September 2017

Jo Anne Callis Untitled (Woman with a Black Line) Archival Pigment Print. ‘From Early Color Portfolio’ Circa 1976 Credit: © Jo Anne Callis, Courtesy of the artist, Rose Gallery and White Cube.

“I warn you- I am not an object” Dorothea Tanning

The prospect of exploring “the enduring influence of Surrealism through the work of more than 50 women artists” filled me with high hopes in terms of repossession of the Feminine and reappraisal of Surrealism in the popular imagination. Art historians have only begun to scratch the surface of female artists written out of the original movement, relegated to roles of lover, wife or muse in the biographies of male artists.  Dreamers Awake features “sculpture, painting, collage, photography and drawing from the 1930’s to the present day” including works by Eileen Agar, Leonora Carrington, Lee Miller, Dorothea Tanning, Leonor Fini, Claude Cahun, Edith Rimmington, Helen Chadwick, Louise Bourgoise, Alina Szapocznikow, Tracy Emin, Sarah Lucas, Carina Brandes, Hayv Kahraman, Eva Kot’átková, Nevine Mahmoud, Penelope Slinger, Shannon Pool, Jo Anne Callis and Julia Phillips. Whilst I welcome and applaud exhibitions bringing marginalised and neglected work by women artists into greater public awareness, this show left me feeling conflicted about the nature of Feminine reclamation, particularly in relation to contemporary art/ life.

Dreamers Awake Exhibition Photograph: George Darrell courtesy of White Cube

One of the problems I had with the exhibition was the overbearing emphasis on the female body, or rather the persistent disconnect between body, mind and the Feminine. On the one hand there’s a challenge to the image of women as objects of “masculine desire and fantasy”, often “decapitated, distorted, trussed up,” “fearsome and fetishized” as “other” in the hands of male Surrealists from the birth of the movement.  Although this “fragmented, headless body of Surrealism” is a “vehicle for irony, resistance, humour” and freedom of expression in the hands of female artists in the exhibition, there is a tendency, particularly in the work of contemporary artists, to simply offer derivative nods to the body politic whilst continuing the patriarchal tradition of the headless woman. Whilst the show ranges well “beyond those who might identify themselves as surrealists”, the superficial nature of the influence (or curatorial connection) in some work left me questioning the universal ground-breaking media exclamations surrounding the show. Fortunately, there’s enough complex, intelligent and beautifully executed work connected to the body to compensate for the weaker, more obvious and mediocre elements of the show. Caitlin Keogh’s clumsy, derivative acrylics on canvas, Berlinde de Bruyckere’s basic assemblage sculptures or Gillian Wearing’s masked photographic portrait of model Lily Cole laden with illustrative symbolism are examples of work which didn’t engender critical changes in perception.

Rosemarie Trockel’s black and white digital print, reimagining Courbet’s 1866 painting L’Origine du monde /The Origin of the World, is an example of an appropriated work which became interesting in spite of itself for the questions it raised. My initial gut reaction was to sigh and roll my eyes at the projection of fear onto an image of female genitalia. Placing an enormous black spider where the model’s pubic hair should be, even to reclaim one’s own body, sex or gender struck me as perilously dull. Effectively it’s a reduction of Feminine power to B-Movie Body Horror by depicting the female body as something dangerous or deadly. This associative trope has been used since the Book of Genesis as an instrument of shame, self-loathing and control, turning desire into the fallen or demonic Feminine other. If Trockel’s intention is irony, turning the male gaze and traditions of seeing back in on themselves, then this image doesn’t really succeed, because like the disembodied woman, the work is missing its head. Perhaps what it does do, (though only if the original image is known to the viewer) is point to a canonical image of the Feminine by a male artist to generate debate in the present. Or if the historical reference is unknown to the viewer (masculine or feminine), the print could also be seen as a positive confrontation with individual or collective fears.  The curious irony is that Courbet’s title acknowledges timeless feminine creative/ biological and sexual power in a way that Trockel’s tarantulan image does not.  Strangely his full-frontal honesty is more convincing in its rejection of idealism for realism and/ or masculine eroticism. It was and is an image that in 2017 still wouldn’t be reproduced in mainstream media on the grounds of obscenity. That the female body is still regarded as shameful, scandalous, shocking or dangerous is cause for debate in itself. If Trockel’s intent is humour and absurdity in her juxtaposition of the hairy spider, then it simply comes across as a laddish joke, especially in the context of her surrounding work which is equally unconvincing in its vision.

North Gallery, Dreamers Awake Exhibition Photograph by George Darrell, courtesy of White Cube

The claim that “by focussing on the work of women artists, Dreamers Awake shows how, through art foregrounding bodily experience, the symbolic woman of Surrealism is refigured as a creative, sentient, thinking being” just didn’t ring true to me in relation to some of the celebrated contemporary artists in the show.  Sarah Lucas’s entwined chairs, The Kiss (2003, Wooden Chairs, varnish, cigarettes, wire, papier-mâché, acid free glue, leather cord) with a pair of breasts on the back rest and a cock and balls protruding from under the seat made from cigarettes is just a clumsy secondary school gag in comparison to a work such as Lee Miller’s Untitled photograph (Severed breast from radical surgery in a place setting 1 & 2, Paris, c.1929, modern gelatin silver prints) which shares the same gallery space. Then and now, Miller was way ahead of the times. Arguably her bodily experience though invisible in the shot is resoundingly present in the composition, with the raw meat/ severed breast served up on a plate with cutlery laid out for the viewer’s consumption. Many of her images cut through to the truth of lived experience, as a survivor of childhood trauma, former model and a war correspondent, Miller found liberation in the Art and life of photography. The juxtaposition of a domestic dinner setting with the disembodied breast is deeply subversive on a multitude of levels. The breast is disembodied, not as an erotic, maternal or biological focus but in the service of psychological, social and cultural interrogation. The two images served up side by side on a relatively intimate scale have tremendous power, in the equality of ideas and execution. Miller’s bloodied amputation is about as far removed from the neoclassical ideal of womanhood seen in the paintings of artists such as Magritte, Dali, De Chirico, Man Ray or projected in Cocteau’s 1932 film Blood of a Poet in which Miller appears in marble whiteout as an armless Neoclassical Goddess. Whilst narrowly fixated male artists of her generation were placing womanhood on a pedestal of passive desire, Miller fearlessly confronts us with an object which is anti-Beauty and savagely confrontational. Of the same generation, Dorothea Tanning’s statement “I warn you- I am not an object” immediately springs to mind. It’s a warning that like Miller’s photographic statement will never diminish in terms of power or relevance. Her emergence as a Surrealist artist equal to those who subjugated her to the role of muse is only just beginning. A pair of breasts, cock and balls made from cigarettes combined with a domestic chair is a lame and underdeveloped contemporary statement by comparison.

Dreamers Awake Exhibition Photograph by George Darrell courtesy of White Cube

As I wrote in a previous post about the Surreal Encounters/ Collecting the Marvellous exhibition (SNGMA, June 2016) the real power and contemporary relevance of Surrealist Art lies in “reconnect[ing] the viewer with underlying passions, obsessions and political activism”, “a collective sense” “beyond dreamy, escapist fantasies and self-promotion”. Despite the easy conversion of the movement’s famous poster boys into merchandise, Surrealism is “rooted in the reality of global conflict, persecution, economic uncertainty, the rise of totalitarianism and coming to grips with who and what we are as human beings.” The premise of the exhibition does pick up on these undercurrents to some extent; “In a world preoccupied with the politics of identity, in which the advances of previous generations must be continually defended, we see the continued- even renewed- relevance of surrealist ideas and strategies.” I couldn’t agree more. What disappointed me were the misguided allegiances to a revolutionary movement playing in the shadows of the contemporary art market.  I looked forward to seeing more evolved attitudes and refined visual language, taking a lead from female Surrealists of the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s and running with it. I certainly don’t mean “refined” in terms of gentility, but in terms of awareness and the propensity to fight (savagely if necessary) for a way of seeing based on the artist’s identity. The marginalisation of women artists as a homogenous group persists today, therefore this isn’t an exhibition of female Surrealists as much as it is a wakeup call in terms of what we bring to this work as viewers- individually and collectively. It is far too easy (literally and metaphorically) to buy into the “surreal” as a word/idea misappropriated and devalued by consumerist popular culture, creating dreamily vacuous or supremely self-indulgent Art in which the disembodied woman prevails. The best work in the show subverts what we have come to believe (or have been taught) about feminine power, Surrealism and the nature of creativity. In terms of Western society, embracing the unconscious goes hand in hand with acknowledging, confronting and liberating what is held in check beneath the surface for political or patriarchal reasons, which has less to do with sex and more to do with the balance (or inequity) of power.

Eileen Agar Butterfly Bride (1938, Gouache and collage, 17 15/16 x 15 3/16 in)

In Eileen Agar’s Butterfly Bride (1938, Gouache and collage, 17 15/16 x 15 3/16 in) the blue Renaissance silhouette of a woman collaged on a ground of text, essentially the cut out of one age informing the reading of another, operates in a self-reflexive way. The encyclopaedic/ historical text, with reference to British colonies, historical rule and exploration works in counterpoint with the beauty and implied fragility of two exotic looking butterflies and the figure of the “bride”, anonymously blue and as collectable as a specimen in an age of discovery. Agar’s collages are frequently not just about the absurdity of images out of their elements, juxtaposed for 30 second amusement or shock value, but are far more texturally layered and sophisticated in terms of ideas and technique. Here the use of collage doesn’t feel random or automatic but considered in terms of dialogue between elements and the wider context of the work, transcending the time it was made. We may well question the freedoms afforded the Butterfly Bride in our own times.

Louise Bourgeois Breasts and Blade (1991, bronze, silver nitrate and polished patina, 11 x 32 x 16 in.) Reverse View. Photograph: G.Coburn, Dreamers Awake exhibition, White Cube.

There is also more than meets the eye in Breasts and Blade (1991, bronze, silver nitrate and polished patina, 11 x 32 x 16 in.) by Louise Bourgeois. What we see from the front is a sculpture composed of folds of flesh and five breasts like cushions with the pronounced geometry and provocation of protruding nipples.  As you move to the side and back of the structure the overall form comes into view. The associations of comfort and domesticity in an everyday piece of furniture and the couch as a repository of the traditional female nude in art comes into play. Then you come to the switchblade behind, the threat of violence where you’d least expect it, a warning against stereotypes and reductive visions of femininity, maternity and eroticism. The artist’s sculpture is like a surreal beast not in an aesthetic but a revolutionary sense. It defies and changes your perception as you move around and find yourself in relation to it. It’s a tangible presence that nourishes, intrigues, seduces, challenges and menaces the viewer from the plinth. It isn’t fantastical but potently real, infinitely more complex than simple dualism or juxtaposition of opposing elements. The inference of soft comfort is rendered in the solidity of polished metal, the couch accommodating the whole family and its needs, equally a source of feminine disquiet. It lives and grows in the imagination as you experience it resoundingly in three (or more) dimensions, as one would expect from a Master of her own Art. The femininity here has multiple layers, views, identities and hidden capabilities against type- it’s a work which refuses to be boxed, with its own distinct voice. I never cease to be amazed, elated and inspired by the penetrating honesty of this artist’s work. Bourgeois brings much that is held beneath the surface into the light with immense courage, consummate skill, tenacity and feeling.

Hayv KahramanT25 and T26 (2017, Oil on Linen 80 x 60 in) © Hayv Kahraman. Courtesy of the artist, Jack Shainman Gallery and White Cube.

Shannon Bool’s exquisite monochrome tapestry The Five Wives of Lajos Bìrò (Wool tapestry, 98 1/16 x 156 11/16 in), Carina Brandes’ Untitled (2012, black and white photograph on baryta) a triangular, mythical inversion of Leda and the Swan and Hayv Kahraman’s T25 and T26 (2017, Oil on Linen 80 x 60 in) rooted in contemporary war on terror were similarly multifaceted engagements with the highly active nature of Surrealism, rather than giving passive aesthetic nods to it. Jo Ann Callis’s Untitled (Woman with Black Line) c.1976, archival pigment print, 22 1/8 x 19 7/16 in) further articulates this idea. It is an image of a woman photographed from above, with just her head and neck visible, face down in a pillow. There’s a drawn line like a seamed stocking along her back and forming the part of her hair, as if she could come apart, be peeled or shed her skin. Is she alive or dead in this sheath of image making? It’s a very intelligent image in terms of where the framing places the camera/eye/ viewer. We are placed in the uncomfortable position of being complicit in this bloodless, internalised crime scene, rendered with a deceptively soft palette of muted colour.

Alina Szapocznikow Autoportrait II (1966, Bronze, 8 1/16 x 10 ¼ x 4 5/16 in). Front View Photograph G.Coburn, Dreamers Awake exhibition,  White Cube

A work which perhaps summed up the exhibition for me was Alina Szapocznikow’s Autoportrait II (1966, Bronze, 8 1/16 x 10 ¼ x 4 5/16 in). On one side, there is a bird-like creature, composed of cast toes for the two feet, a mouth and chin and what look like outstretched wings, a playful, ingenious, hybrid fusion of a human/ bird free spirit that immediately made me smile. Then on the reverse, a different projection of Self, composed of just the cast mouth and upper breast, defining the “automatic” portrait of a woman. When viewed from this position the potentially shapeshifting woman is invisible. One seeing, the other being seen, one free, the other defined by her body, the living contradiction of what it is to be female in a world that hasn’t progressed far enough. Perhaps it was exactly that which disturbed and disillusioned me considering the exhibition as a whole. As I walked around Dreamers Awake I experienced the hope and exhilarating liberation of Art in terms of human expression, bringing what is hidden into awareness. Equally I saw the retrograde dictation of art by market values and a tendency to adopt traditionally masculine tactics to gain attention. I left this exhibition with faith in the tangible power of imagination and the extraordinary vision of female artists as an agent of positive change. I also saw what Surrealism and Feminism is not. That polarity reflects the wider world of Art/ life and the hard reality of creative work as ever more vital, resistant to or complicit with the political, economic and social extremities of the 21st Century.

www.whitecube.com

Paul Nash

Paul Nash Nocturnal Landscape (1938, Oil paint on canvas, 76.5 x 101.5, Manchester Art Gallery ©Tate)

Paul Nash Nocturnal Landscape (1938, Oil paint on canvas, 76.5 x 101.5, Manchester Art Gallery ©Tate)

Tate Britain, 26 October 2016 – 5 March 2017

Forty one years after the last major Paul Nash exhibition, Tate Britain has brought together 160 works drawn from 60 private and public collections for this extensive, timely and fascinating retrospective.  Best known for his war art and Surrealist landscapes, this exhibition illuminates lesser known aspects of Nash’s practice including his photography, collages, 3D assemblage work using found objects, writings, poetry, print making and book illustration. It is an exciting opportunity for reappraisal and discovery of many aspects of the “unseen” in Nash’s trajectory. Literally unseen are Nash’s double sided painting; Circle of the Monoliths (1936-7, Oil on canvas) and The Two Serpents (1929, Oil on Canvas. Private Collection) which have never been exhibited and the newly discovered assemblage sculpture; Moon Aviary (1937, Cedarwood, ivory, stone, bone. 500 x 253 x 150 mm, Ernest Brown and Phillips Ltd) believed lost for over 70 years. However it is Nash’s visionary “unseen” which powerfully reveals itself throughout, highlighted by exploration of his creative process and the juxtaposition of his work with significant objects, archival materials and the work of his contemporaries. One of the best rooms in the show “The Life of the Inanimate Object” is also one of the most unexpected in terms of revealing Nash’s imaginatively fluid process, with his work seen alongside that of fellow artist Eileen Agar (1899-1991). The dialogue between them; personal and professional, the free associative techniques of collage, assemblage and liberating spirit of experimentation combine all of Nash’s passion, vision and lifelong reverence for Nature, reflecting humankind. In the context of this room the artist’s fusion of objects in the landscape and the crafting of his compositions is brought to life; making pure, unconsciously logical sense. Other dimensions also emerge beyond Nash’s individual paintings; the artist as an advocate, collaborator and spokesperson for the British and International Avant-Garde in a time of unprecedented political, social and cultural upheaval. In the “Unit 1” reconstruction room featuring works by John Armstrong, Tristram Hiller, Edward Burra, Edward Wadsworth, Ben Nicholson, John Bigge, Barabara Hepworth, Henry Moore and in the International Surrealist Exhibition of 1936 focus, we see Nash in a national and global field of reference. It is hard to imagine that generational lifespan of memory: having survived the First World War and living one year past the end of the second, experiencing the madness of one annihilating conflict, only to see the world plunge headlong into another with the rise of Fascism.  Nash’s work grapples with that psychological / cultural crisis in a unique and very British way. There is a sense of inherited tradition and emotional reserve, the simultaneous absence and presence of the figurative in Nash’s evolving way of seeing that is distinctive, insightful and progressively contained in the formal structure of his compositions.

Paul Nash, Circle of the Monoliths c.1937–8, Verso: The Two Serpents (1937-8, Oil paint on canvas, 710 x 920 mm, Private collection.)

Paul Nash, Circle of the Monoliths c.1937–8, Verso: The Two Serpents (1937-8, Oil paint on canvas, 710 x 920 mm, Private collection.)

In one of his earliest works The Combat (1910, Pencil, ink and wash. 356 x 258 mm. Victoria and Albert Museum) Nash depicts an angel with sword drawn, descended upon by a dark avian form; half bird of prey, half human against an eternal night sky. They are suspended above what feels like an immense hill, defying the actual scale of the drawing, with finely rendered lines of ink creating a minutely detailed piece of defended earth. Nash was irrepressibly drawn to Nature from a young age and for him it was imbued with living spirit. The Buckinghamshire countryside was a retreat for the family in an attempt to improve the health of his mother and as a child Nash spent time on his own and with his siblings in the nearby woods; a place of solace, play and imagination. The Combat introduces the Divine struggle between good and evil, influenced by the symbolist works of William Blake, Samuel Palmer and Pre-Raphaelite artists such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Nash’s way of seeing through Nature represents “an inward dilation of the eyes” that enabled him to perceive the “Genius Loci” or spirit of place in the landscape and also the aspirational nature of humankind reflected within and without.

In the beautiful nocturnal mindscape The Pyramids in the Sea (1912, Ink and watercolour on paper. 336 x 298 mm. Tate. Purchased 1973) Nash seamlessly transforms water to sand and sand to water in a dreamlike flow of lines, tinged deep midnight blue/ black. Rhythm and movement preside in the surging tide, governed by the moon overhead, with two man-made pyramids shadowing the swell of dune-like waves.  The Falling Stars (1912, Ink, Pencil and wash on paper, 370 x 230 mm. Private Collection) and The Three (1911-12. Ink, chalk and watercolour on paper. 393 x 279 mm. Private Collection) are equally poetic as Nash moves from symbolic illustration in his earliest drawings to a more abstract style of communicating ancient, divine presence in the landscape. In The Falling Stars Nash’s marks of foliage upon the mystical gathering of entwined trees reads like musical notation. The viewer is conscious of a human eye and mind perceiving the immensity and mystery of the natural world. In The Three a trinity of towering elders in the form of trees, their foliage and heads conjoined as if in counsel, cast long shadows over the field. The mid-level horizon line, positioning of the reimagined figurative group and a flock of birds about to wing out beyond the frame, create a sublime feeling of height, space and light which is both physical and metaphysical. The anchor, dominant presence and ancestral knowing within that space of mind are the trees, a recurrent motif in his work. For Nash the English countryside was “full of strange enchantment. On every hand it seemed a beautiful, legendary country, haunted by old Gods long forgotten”.  Like Blake’s poem Jerusalem there is an imperative in Nash’s oeuvre of reimagining and building a new world; “the mental fight” of divine creativity cast in a moral chasm between “dark satanic mills” and visions of a “green and pleasant land.”  For Nash this linked strongly to pre-Christian ways of seeing and being in the landscape. He was drawn to the human mark; to Iron Age forts and stone megaliths as objects and places of collective remembrance and to a mystical, poetic tradition in British painting, printmaking and illustration. Equally Nash was aware of contemporary developments; the work of the Vorticists, who in 1914 declared a new urban aesthetic; “The New Vortex plunges to the heart of the Present – we produce a New Living Abstraction”.  This hard edged adaptation of Cubism celebrated modernity, rejecting the over-refined poetics of past British Art. But the glory of the machine age and advancing technology also brought the horrific reality of mechanised warfare and mass killing the likes of which the world had never seen before. WWI destroyed Vorticism’s angular jubilation. By its end Western civilisation as it was known had imploded, with over 17 million dead and 20 million wounded. Nash was to produce his own form of ‘living abstraction’ in response to the age and his wartime experiences. Evolving his own visual grammar, Nash fulfilled a broader role as witness for a generation in a way that no previous official war artist had.

Enlisting as a soldier in the Artist’s Rifles in 1914 and sent to the Western Front in February 1917, a trench accident and broken ribs effectively saved Nash’s life. Whilst he was sent back to England to recover, nearly all the men in his unit were slaughtered at Passchendaele. He returned to the front as an official war artist in November 1917 and the following year created many of his best known works, moving beyond documentation of the conflict to create an unprecedented public record of warfare in terms of loss. Nash’s experiences in WWI shattered everything that had come before and in the irony of his most celebrated work We Are Making A New World (1918, Oil on canvas. 711 x 914 mm. IWM Imperial War Museums) we see a decimated landscape of body and mind; torn by shrapnel, cratered by bombs, a churning mess of mud and splintered, dead trees. The blood red sunrise casts a singular blinding eye of light over man-made devastation. The land is wounded flesh, extending to heaven;

“Sunset and sunrise are blasphemous mockeries to man,… black rain out of the bruised and swollen clouds…The rain drives on, the stinking mud becomes more evilly yellow…the black dying trees ooze with sweat and the shells never cease.”

“It is unspeakable, godless, hopeless. I am no longer an artist interested and curious. I am a messenger who will bring back word from men fighting to those who want the war to last forever. Feeble, inarticulate will be my message, but it will have a bitter truth and may it burn their lousy souls” -Paul Nash, letter to Margaret Nash, 13 November 1917.

Paintings such as The Ypres Salient at Night (1918, Oil on canvas, 714 x 920mm, IWM Imperial War Museums) depict zig zag fissures of torn earth in the trenches, an emotional geometry that enters a sky ripped apart in After the Battle (1918, watercolour and ink on paper, 598 x 733mm IWM Imperial War Museums) and many of his post war landscapes of the 1920’s and 30’s. It is both a psychological wound and a compositional device, leading the mind’s eye  powerfully and emotionally into the painting. The subterranean world of The Ypres Salient at Night is darker than natural night, lit with hues of acidic green from an overhead explosion and reducing human figures to a few huddled, fractured silhouettes. Time feels suspended in eternal  purgatory. The Menin Road (1918, oil on canvas, 1828 x 3175 mm, IWM Imperial War Mueseums) is the battlefield perceived in the cold light of day; tiny scattered figures at the centre of the painting dwarfed by  the ruin of that engulfs them on all sides, as far as the eye can see. Burned hollows of human trees, twisted metal and a foreground swamp of fathomless debris create an apocalyptic image of modern warfare and its aftermath. Oppressive cloud and shafts of light lance the sky in opposition to the agitated curvature of clouds defined and held somewhere between daylight and darkness. The “road” of the title, all of the certainties of the way ahead through life, have been obliterated, like the hopes, dreams and lives of an entire generation. Originally commissioned by the Ministry of Information for a Hall of Remembrance, there is an overwhelming inner silence in this painting which still arrests the viewer today. Although its dimensions cast it in the role and tradition of a heroic, commemorative history painting, no belief in “God, King and Country” could justify what Nash shows us through lived experience in this image.

Paul Nash. Wood on the Downs.(1930, Oil paint on canvas, 715 x 920 mm,Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums Collections. Purchased in 1960 with income from the Murray Fund.)

Paul Nash. Wood on the Downs.(1930, Oil paint on canvas, 715 x 920 mm,Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums Collections. Purchased in 1960 with income from the Murray Fund.)

In his post war work Wood on the Downs (1929, Oil on canvas, 715 x 920mm, Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums Collections) a gathering of trees and their canopies are melded into a protective front, the curvature of foliage a response to the battering of Nature’s elements. Rolling hills in the background and a white winding road give the impression of hope, but the dominant presence in this work are a huddled mass of slender trees. It is impossible not to think Nash’s lost comrades or survivor guilt when contemplating this image.  In the post war period Nash suffered a breakdown and moved with his wife to Dymchurch where he painted seascapes and the Romney Marshes. The enormity of the sea is an overwhelming force of memory for Nash, having almost drowned, and he paints it defensively, as something to be held back or contained like the memories and life experiences that threaten to drown us. In Night Tide (1922, Ink and watercolour on paper, 381 x 559mm, Private Collection c/o Robert |Travers, Piano Nobile Gallery, London) the frozen waves are sharpened into solid sculptural curves, with the seawall barrier supporting the shadow of a lone figure.  Winter Sea (1925-37, Oil on canvas 710 x 965mm, York Museums Trust-York Art Gallery) is one of Nash’s bleakest works with menacing, cruel waters resembling planes of sheet metal; a tonal highway of dirty green, brown and white leading the eye into an eternal path, with a hollowed indentation of earthen sky where the sun should be. The mood of this work feels very much like an emotional and psychological precursor to Totes Meer (Dead Sea) (1940-1, Oil paint on canvas, 1016 x 1524mm, Tate, Presented by the War Advisory Committee 1946) which expands Nash’s inner vision of Dymchurch to the whole of Western civilization. What has always affects me so deeply about this work is the transformation of Nash’s wonder into industrial wreckage; an expanse of bluish grey seemingly without end, inferring an ultimate ending. When viewing Nash’s photographs of wrecked, fallen aircraft at Cowley Dump near Oxford in 1940 the tide of materials is painfully real. Totes Meer (Dead Sea) recalls the uncanny silence of the battlefield, with the fallen wings of enemy Luftwaffe bombers visible under a waning crescent moon- or is it an eclipsed sun? Either way time in mortal terms is rendered meaningless. The twisted metal creates an oppositional current of movement and unnatural waves; a pale, barren echo of the sea transformed into a desert.

Paul Nash, Totes Meer (Dead Sea) (1940-41, Oil on canvas, support: 1016 x 1524 mm, frame: 1170 x 1680 x 97 mm. Tate. Presented by the War Artists Advisory Committee, 1946.)

Paul Nash, Totes Meer (Dead Sea) (1940-41, Oil on canvas, support: 1016 x 1524 mm, frame: 1170 x 1680 x 97 mm. Tate. Presented by the War Artists Advisory Committee, 1946.)

There is a popular misconception about Surrealism, that it represents a dreamy escape into fantasy and unconscious desires; it is however, in the best hands, highly confrontational in terms of Self, evolving out of the protest that was Dadaism. The Self isn’t just the individual as we have come to define it in 21st Century popular culture but also collective in nature. Nash writes about the “unseen” in his landscapes as a form of perceptive self-awareness, grounded in reality;

The landscapes I have in mind are no part of the unseen world in the psychic sense, nor are they part of the Unconscious. They belong to the world that lies visibly about us. They are unseen merely because they are not perceived.” -Paul Nash, ‘Unseen landscapes’ Country Life, May 1938.

During the 1920’s and 30’s Nash’s Art becomes stylistically distilled; with the introduction of found objects into his paintings, division of the picture plane to suggest shifting perception/ simultaneous viewpoints and the fusion of organic and man-made elements to create a heightened sense of Genius Loci. The De Chirico exhibition held in London in 1928 inspired Nash to explore an architecture of mind that we see evolving in still life paintings such as Token (1929-30, Oil paint on canvas, 51.4 x 61.2, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art). In this image the found object is pushed into the viewer’s foreground, suspended on an easel, positioned in the corner of a room with a telling background of referential frames. An oval plaque of figurative Classicism in the form of a featureless mother/ goddess and child recede into what feels like the interior of the wall. We read the image in relation to the love token, with the gilt frame and uprights of the easel layered behind the foreground stack of object, notebook and canvas. It is a finely balanced composition, semi Cubist in spirit, no doubt linked to the Nash’s visits to France in the 1920’s, but with a feeling of shifting perspective through time, the artist grappling with the art of painting and alternate realities within the picture plane. Similarly Opening (1930-31, Oil paint on canvas, 81.3 x 50.8mm, The Daniel Katz Family trust, London) grasps the mettle of structural composition in a series of framed thresholds. A glimpse of seascape can be seen in the distance, but it is the shifting nature of interior ways of seeing that are invoked by this work.  Poised Objects (1932, Pencil, chalk and watercolour on paper, 55.9 x 37.5, St Anne’s College, University of Oxford) also alludes to perceptive clarity through abstraction with the projecting eye like a lighthouse, guided by creative process.

In Room 6 The Life of the Inanimate Object we see Nash’s diverse use of media with objects such as driftwood, stones and bones having their own life force and entering into his compositions. With fellow artist Eileen Agar there is a sense of a symbiotic relationship; between them and in the artist beholding Nature. Agar’s collage and frottage on paper composition Philemon and Baucis (1939, 52 x 39, The Mayor Gallery, London) together with its mythology is telling in that respect. In Swanage (Graphite, watercolour and photographs, black and white on paper, 40 x 58.1, Tate. Purchased 1973) Nash’s use of collage creates a mindscape of figurative megaliths out of pieces of photographed wood and bone, pioneering his formal and visionary approach to landscape painting. We also see this in Still Life on a Car Roof (1934, Photograph, digital print on paper, printed 2016, Tate Library and Archive), an arrangement of objects juxtaposed with the surrounding environment in three dimensions, then photographed by Nash in black and white. The composition of paintings such as The Archer (1930-1937-1942, Oil on canvas) and Event on the Downs (1934, Oil paint on canvas) make total sense in the context of this room as the artist moves with ease between different media; crafting his visions fluidly through collage, photography, found objects, assemblage, drawing and painting. Although Nash’s landscapes are branded Surrealist for their unexpected juxtaposition of land, sea, objects and architecture, when seen in the context of Genius Loci, ancient human marks in the landscape and his studio practice they feel more like realism in perceptive terms. This heightened reality also has a collective element which is rather different to the 21st Century marketed image of Surrealism as a dreamy, escapist brand.

Paul Nash, Landscape from a Dream (1936-8, Oil on canvas, 679 x 1016mm, Tate, Presented by the Contemporary Art Society, 1946 ©Tate.)

Paul Nash, Landscape from a Dream (1936-8, Oil on canvas, 679 x 1016mm, Tate, Presented by the Contemporary Art Society, 1946 ©Tate.)

Nash naturally found his place in the 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition in London, which included works by Magritte, Picasso and Ernst. However the dreams he explored, not surprisingly given his wartime experiences, were grappling with the nature of the self, reality and truth. Landscape from a Dream (1936-8, Oil on canvas, 67.9 x 101.6. Tate, Presented by the Contemporary Art Society, 1946) illustrates this beautifully in the bird of prey beholding itself, overlapping frames, reflections, and the expansion of interior windows positioned in the landscape. It’s a fusion of alternate realities played out inside the conceit of a two dimensional painted surface. It contains and expands how we see as human beings- as a confrontation with our own natures, reflected in and beheld by an inner spirit of Nature. The reflection of the bird of prey stares back at the viewer, with abstraction functioning as a focal tool, unconsciously pulling a fractured world and soul back together to make sense of its darker self. It acknowledges the mystery and uncertainty of life, but also the possibility of new ways of seeing and being in the world in response to individual and collective trauma.

Towards the end of his life cycles in Nature, the marking of the seasons in the old ways; the Solstice and equinox, create a kind of repose in Nash’s work. In many ways he comes full circle and asserts his place in a long tradition of visionary and ancient land art in Britain. As his own life was ending he returned to the guiding forces of nature; sun and moon and the ritual landscape. In Solstice of the Sunflower (1945, Oil paint on canvas, 71.3 x 91.4, National Gallery of Canada, Ottowa, Gift of the Massey Collection of English painting 1952) Nash aligns the path of the sun with the flaming fire wheel of the sunflower and the ancient pagan practice of rolling burning bales. In its companion piece Eclipse of the Sunflower (1945, Oil paint on canvas, 71.1 x 91.4, British Council Collection) a different aspect is invoked in the decaying foreground sunflower and its eclipsed light above that still extends like a halo of hope around the soul and the world. In 1943 Nash discovered Scottish anthropologist James Frazer’s comparative study of mythology and religion The Golden Bough, which in many ways validated Nash’s lifelong felt sense of the landscape. The end of WWII in 1945 and Nash’s declining health also inform these final summations of life, Nature and the human condition. He presents us here in 2016 with a vision of humanity relative to Nature, in full knowledge of our capacity for annihilation and for the creative, aspirational light of renewal. Nash’s greatest legacy is remembrance, of the fallen in wartime certainly, but also in the movement of the seasons and ancient human marks on the land that still speak to us if we only stop and listen. In the end, as Nash’s work illuminates, creativity is the only thing that saves us.

www.tate.org.uk

Surreal Encounters: Collecting the Marvellous

SCOTTISH NATIONAL GALLERY OF MODERN ART (SNGMA), Edinburgh.              4th JUNE − 11th SEPTEMBER 2016.

T07346

Dorothea TANNING (1910-2012) Eine Kleine Nachtmusik [A Little Night Music], 1943. Oil on canvas, 40.7 x 61cm. Collection: Tate (formerly collection of R. Penrose) Purchased with assistance from the Art Fund and the American Fund for the Tate Gallery 1997.

Having just completed a review of the Surreal Encounters: Collecting the Marvellous exhibition for the TLS, I want to focus more specifically here on the Feminine elements of the show. One of the most satisfying aspects of this exhibition is the way that it reconnects the viewer with the underlying passions, obsessions and political activism of Dada and Surrealist Art; expanding what Surrealism can be in the popular imagination and challenging what collecting Art has become in the 21st century. Drawn from four extraordinary private collections; those of Roland Penrose (1900-1984), Edward James (1907-1984), Gabrielle Keiller (1908-1995) and Ulla and Heiner Pietzsch, the range and quality of work, including key female Surrealists, is stunningly immersive.  Jointly organised by the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, the Hamburger Kunsthalle and Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam, the unique juxtaposition of paintings, sculptures, collages, drawings, photographs, original prints, rare artist books, objects, design and ephemera, presents a golden opportunity for reappraisal of the movement and its masters. There are over 190 works on show by artists including; Salvador Dali, Reneé Magritte,  Joan Miró, Pablo Picasso, Marcel Duchamp, Alberto Giacometti, Max Ernst, Mark Rothko, Man Ray, Henry Moore, André Masson, YvesTanguy, Eduardo Paolozzi , Leonor Fini, Leonora Carrington, Dorothea Tanning, Hannah Höch, Eileen Agar, Valentine Penrose (nee  Boué), Paul Delvaux, Francis Picabia, George Grosz, Joseph Cornell, Hans Bellmer, Hans Arp, Balthus (Bathazar Klossowski de Rota), Roland Penrose and Georges Hugnet.

I could easily devote an entire blog post to individual collectors, the content of their collections or individual artists who provided some of the highlights of the exhibition; the exquisite work of Dorothea Tanning, Leonora Carrington, Leonor Fini, Eileen Agar or Max Ernst’s paintings, collages and rarely seen collage novels. This exhibition presents the opportunity for greater public awareness of lesser known work,  part of a wider struggle for equality. Although recent scholarship continues to shed light on the work of female artists traditionally outside great male creator canon, I’m not convinced that this level of consciousness has really entered the cultural mainstream. The world of Art History is something of an academic bubble and people are too familiar in an age of celebrity with the artist as a marketable brand, rather than a creative force of intention or aspiration.  The objectification of Art in an age of mass consumption (and an Art Market driven by ad men and oligarchs investing in their own shares) makes it hard to imagine that the value of Art can be anything other than the highest price paid at auction-until alternative ways of seeing are made publicly visible.

For me the beauty of Surreal Encounters: Collecting the Marvellous is the way that it does exactly that. We see by example that collecting Art isn’t necessarily driven by investment and status, but by love, collaboration and a desire for the common good. There is also a collective sense within the movement of qualities beyond dreamy, escapist fantasies and self-promotion, rooted in the reality of global conflict, persecution, the rise of totalitarianism and coming to grips with who and what we are as human beings. With Dada as it’s critically savage precursor, unlocking the imaginative, collective unconscious becomes a cultural imperative and a matter of survival. Although we equate Surrealism today with a penchant for bizarre, absurd juxtapositions of images and ideas, what is often forgotten is the outrage of its outrageousness; of striving to be anything but the respectable, compliant, banal mediocrity that enabled extreme militarism to thrive.  Hitler’s regime, like all extremist ideologies past and present, understood extremely well what liberal, democratic governments too often forget:  the value of culture, the capacity of the visual to focus intentionality and human aspiration for good or ill. It is not surprising that subversive, so called “degenerate art”, was identified as a serious ideological threat that had to be eradicated by the Nazis.  The Surrealists were visibly defiant advocates of free love, thought and expression, qualities which remain radical even today. Crucially that radicalism encompasses how we see and define ourselves.

La Représentation [Representation], 1937

René MAGRITTE (1898-1967) La Représentation [Representation], 1937 Oil on canvas laid on plywood, 48.8 x 44.5 cm. Collection: National Galleries of Scotland, purchased 1990 © DACS & The Estate of René Magritte.

René Magritte’s La Représentation /Representation (1937, Oil on canvas laid on plywood SNGMA, Edinburgh, formerly collections of R.Penrose and G.Keiller, purchased 1990) reminds us of the ambiguous truth of seeing and attributing meaning. The Feminine is narrowly edited; “Woman” defined by her sex with the visual focus on the child rearing hips, abdomen and vulva which become an object framed in isolation. Minus the head (intellect), torso (heart) and active limbs, the female body is coolly divorced from its own consciousness; the frame hugging the sensuous contours of the amputated abdomen. However there is always more to a Magritte painting than meets the eye. Here he seemingly reflects the focus of a male gaze, but also suggests the artificiality of the man-made object in its two dimensional representation. The self-conscious framing device is alluring, but equally cerebral in terms of what it suggests about the feminine “other”. The confinement of the frame draws attention to the lie of the canvas and the seduction of idealised Beauty. In juxtaposing these ideas in a single image Magritte playfully questions what we assume we’re looking at- one of his greatest strengths as an artist. It would be easy to appropriate this image as the calling card of one of the Surrealist Boys- but it is more than that. Gender is an aspect of the painting’s multi-layered meanings, not the sum total of them. What it says to me as a woman and as an art historian in 2016 is not to be complicit in the lie- that “representation” is precisely that- with all its attendant dynamics of power. In the context of his oeuvre, Magritte is fundamentally (and very consciously) about how we see and create meaning. To dismiss him as a painter of dreams is to miss the point of his work entirely. There is a sense in which La Représentation enshrines a faceless, voiceless, Classical Feminine ideal in a gilt frame, but it also focuses our attention on the crafting of the image and the idea of received meaning, actively grappling with those perceived truths. Part of the SNGMA permanent collection, it’s a work I’ve returned to many times because it is such a contentious, brilliantly confrontational image that the viewer is forced to negotiate, rather than simply look at, admire or desire.

Being looked at by men is the traditional role assigned to women throughout the Western figurative tradition and the female muse is also a well-established trope in Art. However this passive companion to male engendered Creativity is challenged by the latitude of exploration Surrealism allows- made visible in the scope of this exhibition. Unlocking the unconscious through free association, automatic writing, assemblage and collage techniques creates a heightened sense of alternate reality. The free form craft of placing contradictory ideas beside each other in denial of the absolute asserts the political right to freedom of expression. The beauty of Surrealism is that in its purest form, it brings us into confrontation with ourselves on an intensely psychological level; individually and collectively. It is possible to perceive the world within and without in new ways. There are many sublime examples of this kind of confrontation in the show, presenting alternatives to received ideas, passive Femininity and the supremacy of the Great (male) Artist. In Picasso’s drawing La fin d’un monster / Death of a Monster (1937, Pencil on paper, Formerly collection of Roland Penrose, SNGMA, Edinburgh)  the Minotaur is confronted by his monstrous reflection, revealed to him by Athene, the Goddess of wisdom, holding a mirror to his face in one hand and a phallic spear in the other. It’s an image of male ego, a wildly virile masculine persona confronted by his fallibility and by an alternative state of being. Athene appears as a balancing force of grace, intellect, action and conscious awareness within the composition. In Jungian terms she is a projection of Feminine anima within the male psyche that in Picasso’s case is screaming to be assimilated, rather than being exploded into Cubist fragments as a potential threat. Argentine artist Leonor Fini’s (1907-1996) foreground vision of Feminine self-possession; The Alcove (1939, Oil on canvas, West dean College, part of the Edward James Foundation) is another magnificent example of foreground creative Femininity (in this case within and in front of the canvas. ) On painting Fini remarked: “I strike it, stalk it, try to make it obey me. Then in its disobedience, it forms something I like.” This intuitive, instinctual approach to making Art, acknowledging the artist as a conduit, is balanced by her undeniable mastery of the medium. As in so many Surrealist works, contradictory ideas dynamically co-exist and new ways of seeing emerge. In The Alcove Fini skilfully sets the historical stage of expectation and then subverts it completely, creating tension and the need for imaginative resolution in the mind of the viewer. In Dadaist Art that tension is a knife edge, much more overtly critical of the powers that be-the inclusion of work by George Grosz in the exhibition gives the viewer a potent taste of this quality.

Aus der Sammlung Aus einem ethnographischen Museum [From the collection From an ethnographical museum], 1929

Hannah HOCH (1889-1978) Aus der Sammlung: Aus einem ethnographischen Museum [From the collection: From an ethnographical museum], 1929. Mixed media, collage and gouache on paper. Collection: National Galleries of Scotland, bequeathed by Gabrielle Keiller 1995 © DACS 2016.

Also created during the inter-war /Weimar period, Hannah Höch’s collage Aus einem ethnographischen Museum / From the Collection: From an Ethnographical Museum (1929, collage, SNGMA, Edinburgh, Bequeathed by Gabrielle Keiller 1995) is a fascinating visualisation of Feminine and Ethnological “otherness”.  Höch’s striking image combines an indigenous carved mask like the head of a deity with a female eye cut from a contemporary magazine. Colonised into Modern Art the human figure looks startled, looking over her shoulder with a quizzical, alarmed expression, also confronting the viewer in that moment with their own act of seeing and attributing meaning. There is a distinct feeling of violation conveyed by this disembodied eye set at a distressed angle, recalling the often painted Biblical tale of Susannah and the Elders; the self-consciousness anxiety of being seen as an object to be conquered and being subjected to a gaze which essentially frames you as subordinate. The body which is androgynous and child-like is combined with a bestial foot and tiny stool-like plinth beneath; a hybrid of ancient knowing, innocence, naivety and instinct. Höch positions the figure on an abstract, cage –like ground of geometric forms, juxtaposing Western ideas about Primitivism with collectively inherited values of a dominant “civilized” tribe. She calls into question Western attitudes towards “the other”, presenting the statuette object, “From the Collection: From the Ethnographical Museum” as a conscious human presence. It’s the emotional impact of Höch’s collage that hits you viscerally, the museum type categorisation turned on its head by Feminine resistance.

Resistance to the dominant gaze takes many unexpected forms in the exhibition. Salvador Dali ‘s The City of Drawers (Study for The Anthropomorphic Cabinet , 1936, Pen and Indian ink on paper , Private Collection, Formerly collection of Edward James) is a surprisingly insightful image of modernity. The female nude in the foreground extends her decaying arm and palm as if to ward off persistent assault. Her torso is a construction of drawers, drawer knobs and a key hole becoming erogenous, her face buried in the top drawer as if bowed in sorrowful resignation. Only a tattered rag can be seen coming out of the seemingly empty inner structure. The eye of the viewer is led by her hand into the mid ground of curvaceous discarded drawers, then into the distance where two seated women are similarly composed, one of them searching for herself in the open top drawer of her chest. Beyond we see gentile silhouettes moving through a cityscape, the reality of the foreground more vivid and arresting than the receding world of urban familiarity. This image of Dali’s Anthropomorphic Cabinet; a reclining Venus transformed by Freud’s theories, embodying an inner world of unconscious drives, is also an image of society. In the painted version a well to do woman in silhouette walks away into the background as if in denial of the open drawers of psychic revelation revealed by her other (or collective) self in the foreground. The element of display here is more complex than a reclining Venus arranged for seduction and the result more unsettling; a personification of civilization in decay.

La poupée, 19361965 by Hans BELLMER

Hans BELLMER (1902-1975) La poupée [The Doll], 1936/1965.Aluminium with gold-patinated bronze base, 50 x 27 x 25cm. Collection: Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg/ Pietzsche Collection.

It would be impossible to talk about the feminine aspects of this show and not address the elephant in the room; i.e. the male surrealist preoccupation with the Feminine as object(s) of desire. The most disturbing manifestation of this tendency towards sexual objectification is undoubtedly the work of Hans Bellmer.  In La poupée / The Doll (Aluminium with gold-patinated bronze base, 1936/1965 Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg/ Pietzsche Collection) he utilises the seductive high shine patina of a lustrous, reflective metal sculpture, elevating the repulsive hybridised  twin form of a pubescent girl/ doll onto a plinth. Engineered to satisfy his own gaze, Bellmer confronts the viewer with the framing devices of high art, introducing in the context of the gallery space an image of dominance, power and sexual objectification.  The girl hinges in upon herself as a contorted, inverted object, dehumanised and mechanistic, beyond Nature but subject to the artist’s nature and will. More disturbing still is the placement of Bellmer’s sculpted dolls in different settings, recorded photographically by the artist like sociopathic trophies. La poupée / The Doll (1935, Gelatin and silver print, The Ulla and Heiner Pietzsch Collection, Berlin.) is an example of Surrealism in its darkest form; projected fantasies realised in an assemblage of objects, arranged for gratification of the artist but also by implication, the viewer in the act of looking. Even if we turn away in disgust, the feeling is still of complicity in that white columned Art space. What Bellmer brings the 2016 viewer face to face with is a culture of consumption and sexualisation that is aesthetically and socially accepted. His crafting of objects and images when coupled with his underlying subject matter calls Art itself into question. Although I find his work deeply abhorrent, it is also a good example of work which makes the viewer confront the darkest corners of the human psyche, manifested today in the Surreality of cyberspace or the dark web where any desire can be made real. The work of Hans Bellmer reminds us that freedom of expression, now so prevalent in the visual/ textual bombardment of our digital age, also comes with responsibility to something greater than the gratification of our own desires. Presented as objects of beauty Bellmer’s creations are incredibly sinister, but they are also windows into the human mind and what we are capable of as a species.  Most of us would prefer not to look, to label the work and its maker, filing both away and thereby placing the internal threat outside ourselves. Perhaps in this way Bellmer is a Surrealist artist par excellence in making the unthinkable visible.

Coin de chasteté [Wedge of Chastity], 1954 1963

Marcel DUCHAMP (1887-1968) Coin de chasteté [Wedge of Chastity], 1954 / 1963. Sculpture, bronze and dental plastic, 5.5 x 8.5 x 4.2 cm. Collection: National Galleries of Scotland, bequeathed by Gabrielle Keiller 1995.© Succession Marcel Duchamp/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2016.

Marcel Duchamp’s Coin de chasteté/ Wedge of Chastity (1954/63, Bronze and dental plastic, SNGMA, Edinburgh, Bequeathed by Gabrielle Keiller 1995) is also an object of implied violence with hard bronze cleft into pink, glistening dental plastic. There is the suggestion of possession in the Wedge of Chastity; of female sexuality effectively plugged by the more permanent and more highly valued material of ancient bronze, over and above the disposability of plastic. Feuille de vigne femelle / Female Fig Leaf (1950/61, Bronze, SNGMA, Edinburgh, Bequeathed by Gabrielle Keiller 1995) is a more dualistic object; on the one hand enshrining a cast of female genitalia in bronze but also suggesting modesty, even shame in the fig leaf, recalling the Garden of Eden and by implication the Fall from grace initiated (according to the Old Testament) by Eve. Apparently the only way to keep female desire in check is to dam it. The dichotomy of Duchamp’s fig leaf as a representation of the Feminine lies in its disempowerment, functioning rather like a drain cover, whilst being an object cast in a permanently exposed, tactile state .  Although I’m sure Duchamp would have viewed this object as an expression of eroticism, it feels like a medieval door nailed shut rather than blissfully opened in the spirit of free love.

Feuille de vigne femelle [Female Fig Leaf], 1950 1961

Marcel DUCHAMP (1887-1968) Coin de chasteté [Wedge of Chastity], 1954 / 1963. Sculpture, bronze and dental plastic, 5.5 x 8.5 x 4.2 cm. Collection: National Galleries of Scotland, bequeathed by Gabrielle Keiller 1995.© Succession Marcel Duchamp/ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2016.

Max Ernst’s painting Gala, Max and Paul 1923, oil on canvas, The Ulla and Heiner Pietzsch Collection, Berlin) is a fascinating image; a depiction of the ménage a trois between Ernst, Gala (Elena Ivanovna Diakonova), and her first husband, the poet Paul Éluard, representing the Feminine in an unexpectedly powerful light. Charged between the cool blues and rich ochre of Ernst’s palette, the female protagonist retains her mystery. She is an immediately foreground presence and remarkably underexposed. Her face is turning away from the viewer, half in shadow, becoming the ground of the painting. Anchored to a plinth like a Modernist sculpture, she also creates a sense of anticipation, movement and tension in the sheet that she holds by a thread which spills into the viewer’s space. At face value it’s a gesture of coquettish puppetry, Ernst visualising the human experience of having the world pulled out from under you by desire. But it is also an earthily sensual and grounded image, tangibly real in its abstraction. Ernst and Eluard appear as doll-like figures in the background, leaning into each other in intimate contemplation of Gala.  Her svelte figure in a backless gown, appears like a mermaid, split and tapered down to the sensuous curve of her hand, which like her hollowed eye, draws the viewer deeper into the abyss of the background. She is resoundingly present, part of the depth of the painting and aware of her own power- there’s a sense of what is withheld as well as what is on display. The male figures appear school boyish and immature in relation to the world of the painting, which is her. The viewer is caught off balance by these dynamics and by the unexpected acknowledgement of Gala as an independent being. We are made aware of a mind, connected to her body – a presence which we never see in vacant portraits of Gala by her second husband Salvador Dali, who binds her erotically in his own pictorial technique.

Dorothea Tanning’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik /A Little Night Music (1943, Oil on canvas, Tate Gallery, London) is a beautiful example of revealing that which is hidden and bringing it into conscious awareness. It is a vision flawlessly executed by a truly masterful artist. On an otherworldly, red carpeted landing and stair case a decaying sunflower, petals strewn with creeping green stems aligns with the fourth in a series of numbered doors, left ajar and sunlit from within. Two doll-like girls, their hair suspended in mid-air as if submerged underwater stand adjacent to each other. One leans half undressed, slumbering in a doorway, a fallen petal in her hand. Acidic green walls contrast with the opposing warmth of her red jacket. The tattered clothing of the girl not facing us mirrors the forms of creeping stems, broken and beginning the process of decay. It is a subterranean image of burgeoning awareness, awakening in dreams. Tanning reflects the altered, transitional state of female adolescence, rendered in painterly hyper reality more perceptively real than life. Unlike Bellmer’s depictions, these pubescent girls inhabit their own interior world, un-beholden to the viewer and aligned with natural cycles of human growth. Tanning’s painting Voltage (1942, Oil on canvas, The Ulla and Heiner Pietzsch Collection, Berlin) also depicts a transformative process of becoming in female form. In the absence of the head, a coiled plait of blonde hair attached to the nipple exposes an internal circuitry of self-possession. The pale torso is contrasted with an oceanic background of turquoise green in the birth of a new kind of Venus. She beholds herself, disembodied blue eyes held in repose by an elegant, manicured hand. Like a headless Classical goddess of antiquity, the serpentine curves of drapery and hair adorn and animate the female body in a process of deconstruction. She is her own muse.

Leonora Carrington’s beautifully ethereal, Bosch-like vision The House Opposite (1945, Tempera on board, West Dean College, part of the Edward James Foundation) displays her delicate command of tempera. The house appears as a labyrinth of the mind rendered with the devotional detail and palette of an illuminated manuscript. Carrington’s conservative English upbringing informs Ladies Run There is a Man in the Rose Garden (1948, Tempera on wood, The Ulla and Heiner Pietzsch Collection, Berlin), a delightfully humorous but incredibly grounded image, which has comic kinship with the work of illustrator and designer Edward Gorey (1925-2000). Carrington’s juxtaposition of the walled garden inhabited by Edwardian ladies, invaded by a Green Man is an intricate, playful and extraordinary work, etched in ghostly negative, seemingly scratched out of a richly fecund, umber ground of timeless earth. The sky precipitates dawn and groups of associative figures animate narratives intertwined in non-linear time. A heron, cat and monkey with their attendant meanings sitting on the chest / stomach of an outstretched figure in bed and the positive silhouettes of birds and animals receding into the background create a natural sense of archetypal. This image is all the ancient knowing invested in prehistoric Rock Art colliding with the genteel restraint of illustrative storytelling. One of the escaping veiled ladies points with her umbrella to a fishing hook suspended like a noose, while making an exit out of the frame on the far right, a woman in a broad skirt wearing a tribal headdress disappears into negative space. There’s an imprint here, like the ancient Aboriginal technique of blowing paint over the hand to recreate the imaginative space left by the Dreaming of our ancestors. Carrington was and is a Surrealist master who was dismayed at being described as a “Female Artist”. Unfortunately things have not yet progressed sufficiently in the Art World to make the term completely irrelevant in terms of acquisition, display and public awareness.

I loved this show for its richness and expanded frame of reference, the archival material bringing context to the work and the imperative of collecting Art in an attempt to understand.  As dreamlike as many of these images might be, they are built on strong, resistant foundations that still have the power to make us question everything we think we know about the world and ourselves. One of the dynamics that makes this exhibition so strong is engagement with the Feminine on the part of private collectors, curators and within the creative process of individual artists, both male and female. Spend time in this exhibition, allow your perceptions to shift and bring that heightened awareness into your life.

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René MAGRITTE (1898-1967) La reproduction interdite (Not to be Reproduced) ,1937.Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam © Beeldrecht Amsterdam 2007. Photographer: Studio Tromp, Rotterdam© ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2015.

The Scottish National Galleries website has a series of introductory online videos on each of the four collectors/ collections in the  the Surreal Encounters ; Collecting the Marvellous exhibition:

https://www.nationalgalleries.org/whatson/on-now-coming-soon/surreal-encounters/about-the-exhibition-23687