True to Life: British Realist Painting in the 1920s and 1930s

a1 July – 29 October 2017

Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (Modern 2) Edinburgh

Harold WILLIAMSON (1898–1972) Spray, 1939 Oil on canvas, 60.5 x 85.8 cm. Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum, Bournemouth: purchased from the artist, 1940. © Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum

In the world of Art Realism is an entirely relative term. Between what appears real and the truth lies a world of interpretation. The desire to faithfully render what an artist sees before them is never without projection of one kind or another. When this SNGMA exhibition of Realist painting was announced, I was interested to see what forms it might take in the context of 1920’s and 30’s Britain, both in terms of Art and curation. Having had a typically European/ USA and Australian centric exposure to Art History of this period, dominated by movements and manifestos, the work of individual British artists of the era were less well known to me. Although familiar with the work of Laura Knight, Stanley Spencer, Winifred Knights, James Cowie and Edward Baird, among the fifty-eight artists on display with nearly 90 works between them, there were many unexpected new discoveries. Drawn from public and private collections across the UK, the “untold story of a forgotten generation…of British artists” proved quite definitively that “there is more than one way to be modern” and many ways to be true to life. Surprising works by John Luke, David Jagger, Meredith Frampton, Henry Epworth Allen, Gluck (Hannah Gluckstein), Glyn Philpot, Harold Williamson and Winifred Knights surpassed all my expectations.

I must confess that when confronted with anything too perfect, I’m not naturally inclined to react with instantaneous trust and admiration. In my mind “True to life” means penetrating the surface, however technically adept or gorgeously rendered, something I learned from very early exposure to the reality/ Art of photography, the writings of John Berger and Surrealists like Magritte. The more faithful, real or truthful something professes to be, the more my critical suspicions are aroused about being duped or sold something!  Growing up in Australia, I remember seeing Charles Meere’s Australian Beach Pattern (1940, Oil on canvas) which even then struck me as highly composed, but with all life drained out of it. As a child, I could see the pattern, but it left me as cold as the artist’s blue-tinged palette.  I realise now that what I felt immediately was that Meere was unable to transcend its own time to be convincingly alive in my own. My prejudice walking into this show was anticipating the same and I was glad to have the assumption challenged. This isn’t just about subjective personal taste. There are certain modes of representation that are too easily appropriated in the service of mass consumption. Images of youthful Brits and families enjoying the outdoors, engaging in healthy physical pursuits in a coolly detached, highly perfected realist style are merely a stone’s throw away from Nazi propaganda posters or Stalinist Social Realism. The visual history of fallible human beings has taught me to always take anything trying too hard to be “real” in the absolute sense with a handful of salt. Regardless of the subject, whether an artist paints in a realist or totally abstract style, we will feel the truth of it. What is real is what we believe and belief is (hopefully) about more than what we see with our eyes. As Magritte stated visually in his 1929 Surrealist work “Ceci n’est pas une pipe”, also known as “The Treachery of Images”, a precisely rendered painting of a pipe is still not a pipe.

Gerald Leslie BROCKHURST (1890–1978) By the Hills, 1939 Oil on canvas, 76.2 x 63.5cm. © Ferens Art Gallery, Kingston-Upon-Hull., purchased 1939.

Intriguing subversions of appearance abound in this show. The highly plausible society portrait By the Hills (1939, Oil on Canvas, Ferens Art Gallery, Hull) by Gerald Leslie Brockhurst, with its glossy, brushless technique and signature aloofness, looks astonishingly “true to life” but is in reality a composite of two different models, tempered with a darkly atmospheric background of oncoming storms, conflict and war. The painting is very apt as the main PR image of the show, which is far more complex than its aesthetically pleasing, glamourous veneer might imply. Although perceived as conservative rather than “dramatic” or revolutionary, compared to contemporary developments in European Art, as this exhibition clearly shows, there is much still to be written, discussed and celebrated in the history of British Art. Overlooked until very recently by art historians, resisting PR by never being a coherent group and culturally aligned with the national British tendency to be backward in coming forward, this is a ground breaking show in bringing these works out of storage and into the public eye.

Many of the artists in True to Life exhibited regularly at the Royal Academy, were well known and highly successful in their own time, then fell out of fashion into obscurity. Stuck in the 21st Century cult of NOW, we often forget that being radical sometimes means reviving the past. In fact, you can’t be innovative or shift perspective without understanding the historical foundations of your chosen discipline, even if you choose to completely reject them. As I walked around the exhibition I heard numerous remarks about “what a shame” it was “that this kind of Art is now out of fashion”, how “beautiful” and “unbelievable” the “technique” was and that “you don’t see work like this in galleries anymore!” Art that looks real, is figurative and therefore relatable on a primal level, that people from all walks of life can respect for its Craft (if nothing else), is rather at odds with the dominance of Conceptual Art in 21st Century practice. Too often there is either technique on display or ideas which on their own, in the Art of any era, aren’t enough. They have to equal each other. There are plenty of Realist, representationally “true to life” works which are just soulless technique, manipulation or created in avoidance of feeling. You only have to walk around the annual (and very popular) BP Portrait Award to find countless images of perfectly rendered human beings devoid of insight. In times of great social and cultural upheaval we like to be reassured by the familiar, the popularisation of Retro fashion and design in our own age is a good example. The British stiff upper lip approach to the monumental upheavals and losses of WWI and WWII did not produce a Pablo Picasso or a George Grosz, but equally the sensibility of reserve (or subtlety) and seeing value in tradition produced, in the work of some British artists, works which still speak very powerfully today and will do for generations to come. This certainly isn’t the result of vacuous technical precision, retreat into the idyllic, the idealised or wallowing in nostalgia for times long past. The best artists in the show, each in their own unique way, represent confrontation with the here and now.

Winifred Knights (1899-1947) The Deluge 1920, Oil on canvas, Tate, purchased with assistance from Friends of the Tate Gallery 1989.

Winifred Knights (1899-1947) is undoubtedly one of the most exceptional Realists of her generation. Knights studied at the Slade School of Art and was influenced by early Italian Renaissance composition and painting techniques. She was a superb draftswoman, with a breath-taking command of complex figurative groups, based on extensive drawings. Her paintings are supremely balanced, bordering on abstraction in their understanding and orchestration of the essential, raw elements of painting; form, tone, colour, line and texture. Like a great symphony, it isn’t the structure or design that hits you first, but the level of emotional intelligence.  Knights reveals herself in this exhibition as a socially enlightened, visual activist, positioning female protagonists at the centre of her paintings. In Scene in a Village Street with Mill-Hands Conversing (1919, Tempera on canvas, re-lined on board, UCL Art Museum, London) her use of tempera harks back to Italian Fresco painting. What emerges out of these fine washes of pigment suspended in egg yolk are harder edged (but no less fine) linear pencil marks, defining individual honest faces, modelled on friends and family. Tempera is a labour intensive and rapidly drying medium, with a delicacy sympathetic to the vulnerable human form, saints and angels. Here workers are being addressed by the main female protagonist, dressed in vital red crimson with open palms. There’s a curious mix of social realism and religiosity in this woman as a spiritual leader or potential agent of political change. Knights has a less is more approach to colour, therefore heightening its impact and compellingly leading the eye into the painting, a quality which reaches its zenith in The Deluge (1920, Oil on canvas, Tate, purchased with assistance from Friends of the Tate Gallery 1989). Knights won the prestigious Rome Scholarship for Decorative Painting for this work. The award was initiated in 1913 by the British School in Rome as an opportunity for artists under 35 to work and study on the continent. Fellow recipients of the scholarship included Colin Gill, (whose portrait of Knights appears in his painting Allegro /Allegory (1920-21) in the exhibition), Knights’ future husband Sir Thomas Monnington and Edward Halliday.

The biblical subject of The Deluge, or great flood from the Book of Genesis, reimagined by Knights is a strikingly contemporary, post-industrial, apocalypse. The female figure in the foreground is a self-portrait, her body twisted in frozen flight, hands pushing away in one direction, with her face turned back towards calamity. The extreme angularity of the figures takes British Vorticism’s short lived machine age dynamics to an entirely different level. Grey flood waters flow like liquefied steel, pale grey concrete barriers divide the canvas and the palette of industrial green/ grey are contrasted with accents of stylised red clothing on isolated women and girls in the crowd. The formal geometric structure of disjointed buildings, the bunker-like island and floating debris, together with the uniform stylisation of humanity is pure dystopia. Natural forces like flowing water become solidified, like congealed factory waste as men and women flee, massing as the grey water rises, arms in the air appealing for salvation, attempting to climb up a steep incline towards an idea of safety that cannot be seen. From a distance, human movement is accentuated by the pattern of high toned hands and feet, but as you move closer the chaos of directional gazes takes hold, conveying the feeling that the threat is all around, permeating the entire atmosphere. It is a remarkable, highly charged work, where perspective, colour, tone and form are completely unified. The impact on the nervous system is immediate and illuminating. In the background, a grey panel of light extends from the sky to earth like the natural phenomenon of “God’s fingers”, but here it takes on the appearance of an artificial searchlight, in a world where human forms cast long shadows over land engulfed by the inference of man-made catastrophe. Made two years after the end of WWI the context of this work is resoundingly real and of its time, but significantly it is more than that. Place this painting anywhere in the world today and it would be understood through the prism of religion, wars, displacement of people or the truth of climate change. It’s a stunningly faithful rendering of a universal human narrative, piercingly relevant in the present.

Another painting inspired by biblical text, transformed by modernity is John Luke’s Judith and Holofernes (1929, Oil on board, Armagh County Museum, purchased 1980). The story of Judith seducing and beheading Holofernes in defence of her homeland combines female sexuality and male aggression/ violence within the central female protagonist. Luke’s composition sets the scene in a contemporary home of the 1920’s, where a young woman with a bloody knife in one hand and the severed head of a man in the other forms the apex of the composition. The traditional female servant is replaced by an undefined female companion with her back to us, about to place the head in a sack. The rest of the man’s body lies prostrate on the floor at the foot of a bed. Like a blonde Hitchcock anti-heroine, the intense resolve contained in “Judith’s” dark eyes fill the room. The only warmth afforded in Luke’s subdued palette of greys, greens and brown are her flushed cheeks, lips and the Horror of blood which is heightened by its sparing application. In total contrast with the rest of the painting, the smeared unfinished hands of the man on the floor give the appearance of flailing movement. This unexpected animation in the perfectly rendered scene is masterful. The sense of control and violence is a fascinating twist in relation to the cool glamour seen in fashionable images of women at the time. The 1920’s youthful ingénue becomes something altogether different in Luke’s painting, a psychological and societal threat to the ruling power of masculinity, perpetuated for centuries by male scribes and Old Masters.  Luke reimagines Judith as a force in her own right in a new era of emancipation, in the form of a young woman who looks only in her late teens. Dressed in a plain green collared drop waist dress and dark stockings, she has the stance of an avenging angel and the command of a general. Positioned centre stage in a room of flattened perspective like that of Italian Quattrocento painters of the early Renaissance, there is drama here outside tradition. Unlike the treatment of the subject by many European Old Masters, it isn’t the deed itself that is depicted but a state of calm self-possession immediately after, alive in the here and now.

Marguerite Kelsey 1928 Meredith Frampton 1894-1984 Presented by the Friends of the Tate Gallery.

Another British Realist with an intensely psychological edge is Meredith Frampton. Don’t let the air of cool concealment in this artist’s work fool you into thinking he’s just being decorative- the longer you look at his paintings the more they reveal beneath the surface! Woman Reclining (1928, Oil on canvas, Tate.) is a good example, appearing brushless, highly refined and almost clinically detached. The sitter was Marguerite Kelsy, a professional model, whose faultless skin, carefully groomed hair and ethereal beauty is part of the emotional distance between artist and subject. Her stance is elegantly dignified and professional, dressed in red shoes and a plain white dress purchased by the artist for the sitting, accentuating the warmth of her skin. The composition is as impeccable as her formal pose, hands crossed in her lap, gazing steadfast to the right, way beyond the picture plane, the artist and the viewer. The triangulation of red shoes, pink lips and red flower stamen is contrasted with an understated palette of warm reddish brown, cool sage green and grey blue. The paint feels like it has been applied with the artist’s fingertips. The woman on a sofa/ pedestal, isn’t reclining at all, but still possesses a sensuous beauty in the eyes of the artist. The flower basket reads like a bird cage, sat on a round table beside the serpentine curve of a charcoal coloured couch. In many ways this is an idealised, passive image of womanhood, steeped in classical goddess-like stillness. Her pure blue eyes aren’t focused on the male gaze beholding her, but on her interior thoughts and she is giving nothing of herself away in her expression. In terms of form, colour, tone and composition the artist could do no more. There’s a cultured edge of irony in this highly staged painting from life that feels Austenesque and quintessentially English. The suggestion of repressed (or confused) impulses of adoration and desire seem to inhabit the canvas. Painted with immense care and conviction, Frampton emerges as amazingly complex artist and a fascinating Realist.

Meredith Frampton, A Game of Patience (1937, Oil on canvas, Ferens Art Gallery, Hull)

A Game of Patience (1937, Oil on canvas, Ferens Art Gallery, Hull) takes these qualities to another level. “A critic in the Scotsman” at the time remarked that the painting was “a tour de force of fastidious craftsmanship. Since Lord Leighton died surely no Englishman has painted in a way so learned and deadly smooth.” It feels very much in this portrait that more is being communicated about the learned man behind the easel than the female subject. Her white porcelain complexion and face turned in half shadow tells us that she’s not actually playing solo. Like an unlikely fortune teller, she holds up a card which we cannot see. Her other hand is poised over another card about to turn it over, paired with an upturned King of Spades in the centre of a circle of hidden cards. The warmth in the painting is outside the room, in golden agricultural land seen through the open doorway to the far right. The stylish curve tipped frame fits the interior psychology of the image as perfectly as the pink turning lavender blue crisscross pattern, like a protective fence on the backs of the playing cards. There is so much being concealed and revealed in every detail of this image, reminiscent of the heavily codified portraits of the Renaissance.  There are apples on the table to the left of this modern-day Eve and on her right, sheaths of wheat, together with poppies cut before they’ve had a chance to bloom. Her puritanical white collar and sphinx-like poker face are contrasted with the red sash around her waist, accentuating her figure. There’s no hint of understanding the woman behind the porcelain mask in this portrait, but in terms of the male gaze, it is a totally absorbing projection of the male psyche perceiving the Feminine.  Having survived WWI there is also a sense of the artist constructing order and purity in the form of his female protagonists and within himself. The psychological depth and impeccable technique in Frampton’s paintings is quite breath-taking and one of the highlights of the show.

David JAGGER (1891–1958) The Conscientious Objector, 1917 Oil on canvas laid on board, 55.2 x 46 cm. Private collection © Estate of David Jagger

David Jagger’s The Conscientious Objector (1917, Oil on Canvas, laid on board, Private Collection) is a powerful response to the Military Service Act 1918-1941 by the pacifist artist. In stark contrast to many of the adjacent paintings, Jagger’s brushwork delivers a spirited defence of non-violence. Clearly influenced by Dutch Masters, out of the dark ground, beautifully lit with what feels like firelight, a young man in a hat and pink scarf, immediately confronts the viewer, meeting our gaze. Earthy umber and vibrant flesh tones convey engagement with humanity, together with the strength, hope and determination of the individual in his expression. Believed to be a self-portrait it also captures the heat of the creative process. Jagger strikes a pose as if about to turn away from the mirror to the canvas or move off into a dark city street. This painting feels like a statement of integrity and defence, in a society that did not accept refusal of duty. The portrait is as alive as when it was painted 100 years ago. Although there is self-projection on the part of the artist woven into the canvas, generations to come will look at this portrait and know immediately that this is the face of a man who stood for something. His strong features, straightened brow and fiery expression reveal a fighting man, but not in the name of war or conscription.

One of the most poignant images in the exhibition is Henry Epworth Allen’s The Timber Dump (1935-37, Tempera on board) which borders on expressionism in its immersion in the psychological aftermath of modern warfare. A self –taught artist who fought and lost a leg in WWI, Allen’s painting is like a no man’s land. You don’t have to know anything about his personal history to feel it. I certainly knew nothing about this artist when the painting first drew me to it. It isn’t just the visual associations with the ruined tractor and the tank-like alignment of a tree trunk, workmen sunk into the earth or the stark, annihilated trees. It’s the fact that in this emotionally realist image, we can’t see or feel a horizon. The protruding trunks sunk into upper picture plane, extend beyond it, leaving the viewer sunk in the mud. This is no rural idyll but a landscape of fractured buildings and “creeping urbanisation” informed by witnessing slaughter on an industrial scale. It is a trench view of the world in decaying hues of green and grey, infused with the eerie acidic light of a gas attack and entirely without the light of redemption. Allan’s realism is in complete contrast with the “British landscape as sanctuary and symbol of what they fought for in WWI”. You know from this one painting that this man’s soul and vision have been shattered, it is so palpably real.

Philpot, Glyn Warren; Resting Acrobats, About 1924, Oil on canvas; Leeds Museums and Galleries, gifted by H.M. Hepworth 1934.

There were many surprising images which I felt in my guts to be true to life rather than simply representing or illustrating it. Heavily influenced by German Neue Sachlichkeit/ New Objectivity figurative artists such as Otto Dix and the early work of Picasso, Glyn Philpot’s The Resting Acrobats (About 1924, Oil on canvas, Leeds Museum & Galleries, gifted by H.M. Hepworth 1934) was one of my favourite works in the show. As if channelling the spirit of Weimar Germany, Philpot’s style and ethereal paint handling captures the pariah status of the defeated. His performers in the circus of life stand in straw like beasts of burden, their haunted faces drained bloodless through sheer exhaustion. One acrobat with his hand extended, supporting himself the corner of a backstage set has the gaunt pallor of someone deceased. His young male companion stares sideways at the viewer with only a dim glint of life in one eye, like the opaque creep of death in the eyes of a fish, half dead out of water. Suspended ropes ominously frame the whole figurative group whilst the youngest boy on the far right is absorbed in petting a small costumed monkey. The female trapeze artist sits amidst their semi-circle, her face whitened with stage makeup and the fake merriment of rouged cheeks, with glacial blue eyes staring out into nothing. By the 1930’s the rise of Nazism and the shadow of a second World War was looming, once again altering the lives of this generation forever. Philpot’s The Resting Acrobats presents an image of the real cost of the Roaring Twenties, experienced by ordinary people. There is no high wire escapism or glamorously lit, immortal star performers here, just a feeling of desolation and a generation utterly spent. This is Realism and painting at its most potent, transcending time, place and technique.

https://www.nationalgalleries.org/exhibition/true-life-british-realist-painting-1920s-and-1930s 

Looking Good : The Male Gaze from Van Dyck to Lucian Freud

Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh

24 June to 1 October 2017

David Williams (b. 1952) Michael Clark. Dancer, 1989. Silver gelatine print, 35.2 x 35.4 cm
Collection: National Galleries of Scotland. Commissioned by the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in 1988. © David Williams.

What attracted me to this show initially was the whole idea of turning the tables. We are so habituated to seeing the male gaze directed at women in the history of Art, Photography and popular culture in general, I was intrigued to see what the nature of the masculine gaze turned inwards might look like. Or to be more accurate, what the exhibition curators might do with the overarching theme of “male image, identity and appearance from the 16th century to the present day”, selecting 28 works from the Scottish National Portrait Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery, London. Kate Anderson (Senior Curator at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery) assisted by Ola Wojtkiewicz, have created an interesting show, exploring changing “attitudes to status, wealth, sexuality, masculinity and beauty.” The exhibition is part of a national tour of Sir Anthony Van Dyck’s final Self-Portrait c.1640, recently acquired for the nation by the NPGL with support from the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Art Fund. For a relatively small exhibition it packs some punches, contains some fascinating work and gave me a lot to think about, particularly about inferred narratives through curation.

Jonathan OWEN (b. 1973) Untitled (Patrice de Mac-Mahon, Duc de Magenta), 2013. Sculpture (bust), marble, 58 x 30 x 56 cm. Collection: Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, © Jonathan Owen
Photo: © National Galleries of Scotland.

At the entrance to the exhibition Jonathan Owen’s Untitled (Patrice de Mac-Mahon, Duc de Magenta) (2013, Sculpture (bust), marble, 58 x 30 x 56 cm, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art) is an appropriate metaphor for masculine reconnaissance and the deconstruction of enshrined ideals. Taking the historical white marble bust of a bearded aristocrat, decorated for military service, Owen abstracts the head, re-carving and excavating marble until the individual face is transformed into  an arrangement of geometrical hollows, resembling an architectural atrium and guarding an inner sphere.  Traditionally the marble bust elevated on a plinth celebrates and memorialises ideals of masculine power, duty and nobility, reinforcing social hierarchy and individual status, but here the artist takes a sculpture from an age of Empire and critically reimagines it. The rigid Neoclassical form of masculine authority becomes something much more ambiguous, an interplay of positive and negative space, expanding form and ideas in the imaginative cavity of the head. Strangely there’s a cyber quality to this human form without an individual identity, potentially a new code of etiquette at work in a face composed as a structural framework. It has that sinister Dr Who feeling of something familiar and seemingly benign, comfortably relegated to history and yet alive in its altered form, as cold and intellectualised as marble so often is in the hands of men and state. It’s a portrait bust lacking humanity and individuality, focused on the power of intellect. The artist’s psychological archaeology conceals as much as it reveals about masculine identity past, present and future, which is an incredibly interesting position for the audience in terms of projection.

The intimacy of the exhibition space, accompanying soundscape and video by Mercury prize winning band Young Fathers (AKA Alloysious Massaquoi, Kayus Bankole and ‘G’ Hastings) encourages deeper contemplation of the works on display. The looped sound accompaniment to the show operates as an undercurrent of provocation, informing the images in unexpected ways as you encounter them. The timing and associations for each viewer will be different as they move through the space  and within their own connective loops of sound, image, memory and meaning. The visitor meanders through fragments of haunted piano, natural sounds like wind moving through aged buildings, human breath, voice and chanted commands conjuring the playing, athletic or military training field. The video by Young Fathers, which is the final statement in the show and by far the edgiest work, is a brief, edited sequence of young men half in shadow, illuminated momentarily in the heat of red light, being directed in the manner of a photoshoot to express emotions or adopt a certain stance for the camera/ director/ viewer. The male voices in charge of the camera prompt the sitters; “snarl”, “laugh”, “batter your eyelids- you’re pretty, really pretty”, “have you given enough?”, “be a man, cry for me!”  “look over here- smile”, “who loves you?”, this last question unsettlingly underscored by the kind of cheering background chorus you’d hear at a competitive sporting event. It’s survival of the fittest, the threat of being prey to whoever holds the camera and what that means in the political arena of gender. There’s the contradiction of public intimacy and the power differential between the filmed subject and film makers, provoking questions about the nature of the dialogue. I liked what this added to the visual/ auditory interpretation about what masculinity means, individually and collectively, in the 21st Century and in the context of the whole show. Although the directions given by male voices are not to female models or sitters, they are very familiar as such. It’s a dynamic of inequality which plays out terms of self-worth through dominance or submission to the commanding voice over. It’s a dialogue we’re not used to seeing between men in this kind of setting, but very telling in human terms. The real point is not just “Looking Good” but how the gaze is directed and to what ends socially, culturally and politically.


Francois-Xavier FABRE (1766–1837) Portrait of a Man, 1809. Oil on canvas, 61.5 x 50 cm.
Collection: Scottish National Portrait Gallery Purchased with the aid of the Art Fund (Scottish Fund) 1992. Photo: © National Galleries of Scotland.

The works on display are incredibly varied from the dashing, highly Romanticised Portrait of a Man by Francois-Xavier Fabre (1809, Oil on canvas, Scottish National Portrait Gallery), John Pettie’s haughty, highly coiffed portrait of Sir David Murray (1890, oil on canvas, Scottish, National Portrait Gallery), in which facial hair becomes as potent a calling card as the artist’s signature, to much rawer, more confrontational works by artists such as Lucian Freud and Robert Mapplethorpe. What I found myself doing, going through the exhibition rooms several times, was reimagining the signposted hanging sequence. The five exhibition themes: Dress Code, Good Grooming, Men in the Mirror, The Male Icon and Modes of Manhood were provocative for me because they proved a bit too safely boxed. Less obvious labelling/ hanging, with works juxtaposed in more challenging ways to actively interrogate different themes or underlying questions, rather than comfortably illustrating them, might have been a better overall strategy. For example, why place Richard Ansett’s image of Grayson Perry (2013, chromogenic print, on loan from the National Portrait Gallery, London) in the status of “other” by hanging it in what is essentially the alternative “Modes of Manhood” section? Give the man his due and challenge public expectations of masculinity by placing Perry in the Male Icon section! Not just to disrupt the perfume ad portraits of brand Beckham and super broody Gerard Butler, but because Perry’s status as a contemporary artist, social commentator, journalist and television documentary maker is Iconic. Single handed he has done more than anyone in recent years to encourage debate about what it means to be a man in the 21st century. Although visitors are free to draw their own conclusions about the Male Icons VS Modes of Manhood face off on opposing walls, this relegation seemed strangely at odds with the open stance towards masculinity present in individual works and in the aspirational nature of the show.

Richard Ansett Grayson Perry, Commissioned for BBC Radio 4’s Reith Lectures 2013 © Richard Ansett/BBC. National Portrait Gallery, London

The image of Grayson Perry dressed as his alter ego Claire is one of a “plethora of masculinities” forming his identity and a vision of what masculine and feminine outside the box might look like. Hung adjacent to Robert Mapplethorpe’s Smutty (1980, Silver gelatine print, Artist Rooms, National Gallery of Scotland & Tate) and an exquisitely beautiful, melancholic portrait of dancer/choreographer Michael Clark by David Williams (1989, Silver gelatine print, Scottish National Portrait Gallery) notions of masculine and feminine become more visibly fluid through the lens, despite being thematically confined in the exhibition space.  Ansett’s portrait of Grayson Perry/ Claire speaks resoundingly of the Self as masculine and feminine. Claire’s gaze meets the viewer’s, her red drawn eyebrows raised in confident punctuation, silently addressing the camera/viewer with a mature, worldly gaze. Standing steadfast in orange platform shoes, the exit door in the corner of the plush, red room appears too small, giving an Alice in Wonderland shrunken quality to the surroundings and heightening Claire’s dominance in the room. This photograph, taken for the BBC Radio 4 Reith Lectures, is a vibrant, unmissable statement in recoding dress and viewer expectations. The pattern on Perry’s dress incorporates his childhood teddy bear “Alan Measles”, it’s colourful and intensely psychological, an element that speaks of the formation of identity in childhood.  Claire’s flamboyant style combines youthful bobbed hair with middle aged 1970’s party host dress, a contradiction of doll-like red lips and intellectually loaded “blue stockings”. Claire launches a “so what?!” stare to the viewer/ photographer, the playfulness of the outfit in tandem with the artist’s impending public address. Perry’s everyman status integration into the mainstream comes through in his TV appearances. All of his work raises a mirror to Self and society, never shying away from the complexity of being the masculine/ feminine humans we all are psychologically. Perry/ Claire is not just about fashion, grooming or being outrageous, he/she’s about being visibly him/herself, a living, creative force for reflection, empathy and positive change; a true male icon acknowledging the Feminine within himself.

A portrait that feels real amongst the pumped-up sport/ rock/ film star “Male Icons” wall is Nadav Kander’s image of Tinie Tempah (Patrick Chukwuemeka Okogwu), (Ink jet print made in 2011, National Portrait Gallery, London.) What shines through is masculine beauty through self-possession. Tempah is a rapper, singer, songwriter, with his own fashion and independent record labels. The portrait exudes confidence, pride and ambition but without aggressive dominance. He’s a man looking beyond the viewer and the confines of the frame, rather than measuring himself against them. Dressed in a white shirt, bow tie and diamond earing, his groomed success is refreshingly stained with shades of purple spray paint from the street. The fine paint splatter isn’t makeup, but identification and strength in the knowledge of where you come from. It feels like the foundation of the man and his character inhabiting the image. Tempah exudes the beauty of self-possession not in posturing but from his pores, nuanced with the purple sheen of nobility, the anti-establishment spray of graffiti and a natural blue/black lineage of pride. Although the head a shoulders image is traditionally composed, the introduction of different hues and attitude of the subject subverts this, becoming a much more layered statement of gender, class, race, artistic intent and individuality. The adjacent photographs of actor Gerard Butler and footballer David Beckham seem doubly one dimensional by comparison, simply selling a celebrity line on masculinity in black and white, as if the name / brand/ macho snarl were enough- and perhaps they are for a two second hit. However, in the Art and specifically portraiture, it isn’t just about looking good, flattering the sitter or selling a product, but being human and vulnerable on some level- traditionally considered a very un-masculine trait, especially for men in the public domain. In that respect, the relationship and trust established (even in a single sitting) between the artist/ photographer and the subject is critical. Individuality and identity are often about revealing that which is hidden, because in the words of T.S Eliot we all “prepare a face to meet the faces that we meet”. For men, being strong is often a necessary part of that self- projection to the world, but strong doesn’t have to be overly aggressive, physical and in your face. It can be found in quiet, contemplative dignity, as we see in Kander’s very masculine, equally beautiful image of Tempah, subverting the super machismo normally associated with the Rap music industry. The independent spirit of this portrait is about more than the ego or status of the sitter, displaying layers beneath his worldly success, sprayed onto his skin and clothing, not to conceal who he is, but to reveal something about his core self, not just as a man but a human being. It’s exactly that kind of insight that sorts out the men from the boys; a level of understanding, integration, mutual respect and sensitivity in collaboration between the artist and subject.

Gerard Jefferson-Lewis. Untitled (Butcher Boys) Portrait Number 472. Photograph, three framed C-type digital prints, each: 59.4 x 84.1 cm. Collection: National Galleries of Scotland, gift of the photographer 2013. © Gerard Jefferson-Lewis.

A very ambiguous, intriguing collaboration between artist and subject unfolds in Untitled Man (Butcher Boys) Portrait No 472 by Gerard Jefferson-Lewis (Digital chromogenic print, made 2012, Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Gift of the photographer 2013. NB/ in the exhibition this consists of one image only rather than a sequence of 3)  The butcher’s white frock becomes a generic uniform, intensifying our sense of the individual face emerging from the ground of white and grey. The young man’s sensuous lips, eyes in mutual exchange with the male presence behind the camera, coupled with his “unfixed identity” in uniform is a compelling exploration of power, or perhaps the illusion of it. The series “Butcher Boys” has homoerotic undertones, of youthful, raw meat and (at least to this female viewer) the ironic suggestion of how women are often posed for the male gaze in a very different type of uniform. Jefferson-Lewis’s portrait is arguably more understated and complex. The male subject here is clothed in a metaphorical blank canvas, a frock of service and the purity of white. On one level, he can be whatever the viewer imagines him to be and yet his individual face stands out from the adopted costume with an expression that contains and projects his own desire. There is conformity and individuality in this image of a masculine presence that is seductive without resorting to clichés of rippling muscles and obvious physical virility. Here the proposition and exploration is sensuously cerebral.

Daniel MYTENS (1590-1647) James Hamilton, 1st Duke of Hamilton, 1606 – 1649. Royalist, 1629
Oil on canvas, 221 x 139.7 cm. Collection: National Galleries of Scotland. Purchased with help from the Art Fund, the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Pilgrims Trust 1987. Photo: Antonia Reeve.

Daniel Mytens’ portrait of James Hamilton, 1st Duke of Hamilton, 1606 – 1649. Royalist, (1629, Oil on canvas, 221 x 139.7 cm, National Galleries of Scotland) presents a face to the world befitting Hamilton’s status as chief advisor to King Charles I. It’s the theatre of the portrait flanked by drapery on one side and an Italian marble column on the other. This richness becomes opulence in the silver threads and bobbin lace of his clothing, soft kid gloves, fine shoes and spurs. His eyes meet ours as sharp points of light like the tip of the rapier which hangs at his side. The background suggests dominion over sea and land. We are clearly faced with calculated masculinity, standing above us in the context of the royal court and the nobleman’s sovereignty over his own estate. Nearby is Sir Anthony Van Dyck’s portrait of Lord George Stuart, 9th Seigneur of Aubigny (1618-1642), (Oil on canvas, circa 1638, 86 in. x 52 1/2 in, on loan from the National Portrait Gallery, London) displaying an equally opulent but almost mythological persona in union with nature. The spring of flowing water, roses, foreground plants, together with the hoe or fork he’s carrying  symbolically hooking into the tree in the background, position the male figure at the centre of the composition, but there’s a twist. Stuart is leaning on an ancient stone in this pastoral idyll with the inscription; “ME FIRMIOR AMOR” (Love is stronger than I am), an encoded admission of personal vulnerability from a member of the ruling class, harking back to the Classical world of Gods and nymphs. He’s not showing us his whole hand though, one is hidden beneath his robes of ochre/ gold and blue, as if holding something back from the viewer and this mysterious air keeps us on the backfoot as spectators. His luxurious hair and embroidered boots make him look effeminate to contemporary eyes, but this is a heroic image of manhood and learned passion which commands the space he occupies.

Sir Anthony VAN DYCK (1599–1641) Sir Anthony Van Dyck, circa 1640. Oil on canvas, 56 cm x 46 cm oval. Collection: National Portrait Gallery, London.Purchased with support from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Art Fund in honour of David Verey CBE (Chairman of the Art Fund 2004-2014), the Portrait Fund, The Monument Trust, the Garfield Weston Foundation, the Aldama Foundation, the Deborah Loeb Brice Foundation, Sir Harry Djanogly CBE, Mr and Mrs Michael Farmer. Matthew Freud, Catherine Green, Dr Bendor Grosvenor, Alexander Kahane, the Catherine Lewis Foundation, the Material World Foundation, The Sir Denis Mahon Charitable Trust, Cynthia Lovelace Sears, two major supporters who wish to remain anonymous, and many contributions from the public following a joint appeal by the National Portrait Gallery and the Art Fund, 2014

Anthony Van Dyck’s final self-portrait (circa 1640, Oil on canvas, 56 cm x 46 cm oval, National Portrait Gallery, London) speaks of masculine confidence in maturity, secure in his position as one of the most celebrated court painters of the age. Although dressed as a gentleman, the loose painterly handling of his clothes suggests that fashion isn’t the focus of the image. He’s reached a stage of life where he doesn’t have to accentuate the finery to know or tell the world who he is. What he sees in the mirror is his skilled accomplishment as an artist in his own right. His stature emerges in the presence of the man, his head turned towards the viewer in a three-quarter pose. He’s utterly composed and assured; intelligent eyes acknowledge his self-regard in the mirror and address the viewer. His turbulent hair gives him a strong, independently spirited air. He’s not playing at being anything, he’s just convincingly painting himself. The clothes he wears feel unfinished, almost abstracted from his conscious being. The man in the mirror can be the truth or a lie and here the former triumphs over the latter in an image that feels sketched, unfinished and imperfect. The focus is very much on capturing the face and identity of the artist as an individual and it continues to speak across the ages.

Lucian FREUD 1922-2011. Self-portrait, 1963. Oil on canvas. © The Lucian Freud Archive / Bridgeman Images

The artist’s touch also speaks volumes in Man’s Head (Self Portrait III) by Lucian Freud (Oil on canvas, 1963, on loan from the National Portrait Gallery, London). Rendered entirely in potently, earthy flesh tones, the artist’s furrowed brow of impasto hides his eyes as he squints to perceive the truth in himself. It’s a visual statement of Freud’s belief; “As far as I am concerned, the paint is the person. I want it to work for me just as the flesh does.” We can feel that physicality in animated strokes defining cheeks, brow and chin and in the caress of his parted hair. This life in paint is contrasted with the horizontal linear pattern of marks in the uniform brown background. He makes himself stand out, in an audacious and highly accomplished visual statement, making the most of a reduced palette and the immediacy of brushstrokes which have their own distinctive rhythm. Hopefully how various rhythms and themes harmonise, contradict or clash, leading to examination of the viewer’s underlying beliefs, stimulating debate about the nature of masculinity, will be triggered by the works on display. It is wonderful to see, even on a small scale, collaboration and exchange between national collections so that audiences can experience works which may not have otherwise toured to different parts of the country. On one level I can’t comment on what it means to be a man in the 21st Century, but this exhibition provides a window to the complexity and interconnectedness of masculine and feminine and the need for both definitions to be expanded, in our own minds and in the wider world. Portraiture is above all else the study of humanity, faces which are public, private and potential agents of change in how we perceive ourselves.

https://www.nationalgalleries.org/exhibition/looking-good-male-gaze-van-dyck-lucian-freud

PART TWO 2017

EOGHAN BRIDGE, FIONNA CARLISLE, SAM CARTMAN,KIRSTIE COHEN, ALAN MACDONALD.

Kilmorack Gallery, 27 May – 5 August.

Sweet Mystery (Ceramic) by Eoghan Bridge.

Kilmorack’s latest exhibition of solo statements by five individual artists works beautifully in the whole space, joyfully punctuated by sculptor Eoghan Bridge’s latest body of work. Introducing vivid primary colours into his Art, Bridge is knowing, playful and often poignant in its treatment of the human figure, balanced against the recurrent archetypal figure of the horse. This essential relationship feels like an extension of self in equine form, deriving strength and stability from the unconscious. It’s a circular dynamic where the powerful stability of the horse and the vulnerability of the human rider are symbolically entwined. Work such as Trojan (Ceramic) cleverly places one figure inside and in relation to another in an abstracted inner love triangle, playing with the Classical myth of the Trojan horse and whole idea of emotional and psychological defences.  Jungian psychology; animus (the feminine inner personality in men) and anima (the masculine inner personality in women) linked to creative process also comes to mind. This isn’t theoretically implicit in Bridge’s work, but there is an aspect of striving to balance emotion, instinct, vision, form, human and animal aspects of the psyche at the base of his work which always fascinates. Human figures are often dwarfed by the animal form supporting them in elevation, or inverted with the horse balanced precariously above. Seated human figures fold in on themselves, faces hidden in melancholic withdrawal or poised in acrobatic movement, reminiscent of the joy and wonder felt being taken to the circus as a child, tinged with a captive edge of sadness. When I Close My Eyes (Ceramic) is a beautiful example, with the seated human figure cast in a sorrowful, introspective posture, facing a horse poetically doing a handstand with upright stability, balancing a red ball with its hooves. Face to face the horse looks like a best friend, partner or inner companion being a metaphorical rock, attempting to make us laugh our way out of grief, loss or isolation.

There is great joy and humour in Bridge’s work but also compelling fragility. In Up and Away (Ceramic) the human figure is tethered to a bright cadmium red balloon horse held aloft by an uncoiled, spring like umbilical cord of thought and feeling. The inflatable horse is almost comic, invested with the tension of colour and form about to potentially burst into life. The balloon horse feels like hope as a life line extending from the human figure, resiliently poised with its hooves steadfast, holding up the infinite imaginative space above it which the figure is blind to in the moment. On one level it is quite whimsical, a surreal, improbable juxtaposition and yet it feels very much like the existential reality of being human.  Kiss my Rider (Ceramic) connects the geometrically square horse with a buttoned mane of Mondrian primary colour, to the bent human figure, both rendered in pure white. The horse is defying its weight and gravity, balancing upon its nose on the back of a female figure, bent not uncomfortably double. Her hair is styled into a dairy swirl cone point and her figure is childlike, suggesting a process of creative development, enabling her to support the form she’s still flexible enough to hold aloft. The horse miraculously rotates when guided by the hand, adding a dimension of animated delight into a work which instantly made me smile.

Party Time (Ceramic) by Eoghan Bridge.

In Sweet Mystery (Ceramic) an outstretched, youthful, masculine figure is balanced along the horse’s back, supporting a cobalt blue balloon in his mouth and a horse’s head with his feet. The horse supporting the rider beneath gracefully bows its head in a role reversal of quiet vulnerability. Narratives are triggered from each angle of interlocking, natural dependency and through awareness of positive/ negative space in three dimensions.   Party Time (Ceramic) is a technically ingenious work where Human figures are gathered, alienated and alone in jovial suspension, supported by the tabular, equine form of their collective unconscious. They are all connected but that isn’t their conscious experience above the surface, where eyes never meet and each figure is absorbed in their own gaze. The horse as an archetypal symbol of grounded power and unbridled freedom forms a richly meditative sculptural base for exploring the human condition. Bridge’s strength is that he understands positive and negative spaces physically, aesthetically and psychologically. What I love about this work is the supreme care in crafting the delicate patina of ceramic; seemingly transforming it into the green, oxidised sheen of bronze. This is contrasted with glorious, emotive accents of colour in pure, yellow, red and blue, unexpected bursts of joyous humour and the intriguing possibilities of multi-layered interpretation. Bridge’s work is enjoyable and thoughtful in equal measure.

Mountain Rock I (Mixed Media) by Kirstie Cohen.

Regular visitors to Kilmorack will be familiar with Kirstie Cohen’s Northern landscape paintings in oils, however this latest body of work incorporating mixed media, collage and drawn figurative elements  allows the artist greater latitude, bringing a spirit of bolder experimentation into play with her signature paint handling. Mountain Rock I (Mixed Media, 50 x 50cm) is akin to Chinese ink drawings and paintings, communicating the essence of Nature with monochrome strength and economy. Mountainous forms created from collaged black brush work on paper are given weight, substance and texture, with flourishes of opaque, fluid handling, delicately feathered edges of pigment and torn edges of rag paper contributing to the subtlety of textural marks. There’s a feeling of focused energy in the flow of water, ancient rock, depth of reflection blocked in black and the movement of torn horizontal strips of cloud above.  The image sits confidently between abstraction and recognisable natural forms and this spirit of experimentation has also informed the artist’s work in oils. Cloudscape Study (Oil on board, 30 x 40cm) is a fine example, with a hovering mass of softly striated rain bled into pure, vivid, turquoise and deepening hues of quiet turbulence. The mid ground is fixed with striated marks and finely scraped impasto, golden yellow accents drawing the eye into an atmospheric space between the water and sky.

The Gathering I (Mixed Media) by Kirstie Cohen.

In The Gathering I (Mixed media, 35 x 40cm) Cohen’s fusion of the drawn human figure with elements of nature and multi-layered abstraction present an ancestral vision in ochre, turquoise, green and indigo. The sketched figures emerge and recede into shadow and tree forms with densely spun branches anchor the triangular composition in an apex of light. This sense of experimentation in the studio brings strength and regenerative energy to Cohen’s characteristic approach to landscape and it is wonderful to see this evolution in her work.

Caley Salsa (Acrylic on paper) by Fionna Carlisle.

Fionna Carlisle’s strongest works in the show emerge from vibrations of colour, rhythm and music combined with the human figure. Drillfloor from Doghouse, Alwyn North (Acrylic on Paper, 79x 67cm) depicts a whirl of human industry in orange hardhats, flashes of pink and yellow protective clothing and heavy, black lines of rapidly sketched movement. This expressionistic handling becomes a painterly celebration of life, colour and movement in Caley Salsa (Acrylic on paper, 58 x 64cm). With a lucid palette reminiscent of Franz Marc, Carlisle’s loose brushwork fills every part of the picture plane creating its own carnival-like rhythm. Cool, deep blue and flashes of emerald wash vibrate against the heat of yellow, pink, orange and red as figures fragment, joyously losing themselves in the dance. When seen  alongside paintings which place the human figure, colour and movement centre stage ( both in terms of the artist’s paint handling and treatment of the subject) Carlisle’s still life works and smaller static studies of musicians feel less convincing and immersive, reading like decorative surfaces in comparison.

Tracklines, The Loch (Oil on board) by Sam Cartman.

Sam Cartman’s unique, abstract focus on rural landscapes, abandoned and semi industrial sites is fused with exploration of formal composition, paint handling and drawn marks to create strong, unified paintings, leading the eye into the work in surprising ways. Incorporating flat planes of industrial greens, greys, white, marine blue and yellow with restrained accents of red and orange, Carrtman’s palette is decidedly man-made in terms of pigment and control. Move closer and determinate contrasts of line, unexpected delicacy of drawn marks, fluid washes of underpainting and textured ground begin to emerge, contrasted with the bold, planar treatment of buildings, land and sky. Typically human figures are entirely absent in the artist’s work, communicating an eerie, forsaken quality in the landscape , however it is the drawn mark of a human hand, usually scratched into thicker swathes of paint which draw the viewer into the image. Tracklines, The Loch (Oil on board, 91.5 x 122cm) is a good example with the expanded width of track becoming the viewer’s foreground. Pencil marks lead us into the distance to a higher horizon line, defined with blue/ red built structures and fluid yellow hills. The shallow tonal range of mint green in the sky and land create an atmosphere of stillness as we set out following the tracery of human marks across an agricultural landscape. Whilst the Romantic myth of wild Scotland prevails, dominating landscape painting in the form of misty mountains, colourful seas and atmospheric moorland, Cartman’s vision is grounded in a landscape transformed by cultivation. The profound white silence of winter in Lambing Tracks (Oil on board, 61 x 74cm), spatially divided with planes of grey and icy blue are, on closer inspection, tempered with fine details of mark, tone and texture. The red, linear horizon line encompasses the abstracted form of a barn roof and clustered outbuildings in angular black and sky blue. In many ways it is a desolate space reinterpreted by the artist in formal compositional terms, creating a strange kind of beauty. The crux of this is how colour, line, form, texture and tone are balanced in the image as a whole. Ae Forest Study (Mixed Media, 15 x 21cm) punches far above its modest scale in that respect as a beautifully realised fusion of pictorial elements. Glimpses of yellow and pink emerge through the grey and aqua blue/ green progression of forms and pencil marks, leading us down the road into the journey of the image. The cool, assured palette beckons us into a space which is ultimately greater than the physical dimensions of the picture plane.

Pop III (Oil on board) by Alan Macdonald.

Informed by the canon of Art History, the techniques of old Masters and consumer Pop Culture, Alan Macdonald’s lively, sophisticated paintings always contain a gleeful element of play. With the exception of Hungry Hearts (Oil on Linen, 45’ x 36’) which includes an uncharacteristically clumsy cartoon character trope, Macdonald is on top form. Pop III (Oil on board, 12’ x 14’) is a work of playful genius, a wry and beautifully executed puzzle of a painting.  Macdonald frames the middle aged bearded male protagonist in a series of locked/ keyholed panels or hidden drawers, flanked by two delicate wooden columns, one painted decoratively in blue stripes aligned with a bluish bubble in the lower left of the painting. Positioned above the central portrait is the tantalising museum-like display of a wire skewer, just out of reach, daring the viewer to disrupt the scene by bursting bubbles. The protagonist’s historical costume has another instrument of deflation in the safety pin attached to his collar. It’s an emblem of shared mischief between artist and audience, like the sphere of pink bubble gum in his mouth and anticipation of the inevitable “pop” of sound and meaning. His cap is tethered to the left hand side of the frame, supported precariously with a small rope tied bag which resembles a balloon losing air. The word POP is planted beneath the masculine Father figure as a multi-layered punchline. This is Macdonald doing what he does best, grappling with the truth of being a man and an artist in the serious playground of the studio.

The Prophets of Doom (Oil on board, 10’ x 16’) delivers a visual judgement by definition in the text planted at the base of the figure with Black defined as an adjective; “the darkest colour, reflecting no light, obscure, dark, dismal, sullen, horrible,  dusky, foul, dirty, malignant, dark haired.” Above that negative pronouncement of written language a naked, cloaked prophet has come in from the wilderness, holding a bible-like tome with opened pages blankly illuminated by the torch he’s holding. His mouth is agape, hair dishevelled and face marked with dirt, nervously looking above to the stone frame or proscenium arch of the composition which is visibly crumbling. Likewise the ground beneath his feet is cracking and strewn with stones. The shadow under his foot places him on a ledge, with the viewer occupying his negative space, a theatrical pronouncement of fear and nothingness in the act of beholding (without Faith) the comedic play of life. It’s an image which is immediately humorous but also devotional in its search for meaning through Art. As clever as it is heartfelt, crafted with deliberation and instinct, it’s a painting that repays the participant viewer every time we return to the painted scene. The restrained palette is Spartan browns, sienna and umber with a deepening blue background onto which we can construct and project our own narratives, which is exactly the beauty of Macdonald’s Art.

The Tower of Dreams (Oil on board) by Alan Macdonald.

Whilst Hungry Hearts dominates this suite of paintings in size, The Tower of Dreams (Oil on board 30’x24’) with its central Female protagonist trumps it completely. This aspect of the psyche is tremendously strong in Macdonald’s Art and surfaces with the presence of women who command attention entirely on their own terms. Clothed in a blue, hooped dress with her hair piled high like a Goddess, head tilted and one eyebrow raised to question the viewer, she is resoundingly positioned centre stage. The song lyrics “close your eyes and drift away” are hung in an oval pendant around her neck, whilst above her, poised between “North” and “South” is the perfect symmetry of a banner; “This is the day that your life will change. This is the day when everything will fall into place.” Attended by figures in miniature she has the mysterious presence of an oracle. The plucked nib of leaves in her hand feels like they are about to be dropped in an act of divination onto the cracked stone stage, damaged by a cannonball lodged in its surface. The background treatment of deserted, villas, Roman colonnades and countryside, receding into blue water, sky and distant shores, creates a dreamlike dimension with Renaissance players enacting scenes of trial and torturous revelry around the central figure.  The background Feminine self stands on one hand, balanced above a canal. A bottle cap becomes a stage where a masked male figure on horseback impales another version of the heroine in a joust. This circular stage form is mirrored in an erupting vertical fountain of underground water, upon which the female figure stands behind a seated, male figure in a monk-like robe, tightening the rope that binds him. Just above the hem of the central figure’s skirt a door is opened like a drawbridge, revealing a fiery, purgatorial scene with skeletal Death and Bacchanalian fauns attending another splinter self or feminine doppelganger, loosely clothed and about to be cloaked in yellow. Right at the edge of the painting in the extreme foreground is an enigmatic man in historical costume observing beneath half closed eyelids a space just beyond the picture frame, with his white Venetian styled mask resting beside him. Every element of the composition triggers potential narratives in an endlessly engaging visual game of conceal and reveal. The complex arrangement of figures in tableaux is expectantly still, waiting for the viewer to interpret and project their own dreams, visions and fantasies into the painting.  The figurative tower is feminine, unconscious, multifaceted and more powerful for being so.

This is a diverse show, cleverly annexed so that bodies of individual work can be fully appreciated. Allow yourself time to take it all in.

All images courtesy of Kilmorack Gallery.

www.kilmorackgallery.co.uk

Karla Black and Kishio Suga: A New Order

Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art  22 October 2016 – 19 February 2017

Kishio Suga Condition of Critical Boundary, 1972. Wire mesh, brick, wood, stone (dimensions variable) Installation view at Tamura Gallery, Tokyo, 1972. Photo: Kishio Suga. Courtesy of the artist and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo.

Each thing and space had belonged to particular worlds of their own before they were hand picked up by the artist and in these worlds they all had preconditioned orders labelled by nature or by people. Orders here mean ranked situations or hierarchy, whether they have certain parts in the place or not, their values, demands, qualities or quantities…my final point in making artworks is to introduce ways to see and learn about things, to perceive an existing space differently so that viewers can experience a new kind of order. If they can apply their experience with art into their daily life, the new order may find settlement there. I would like to introduce a new way of reacting (to situations) in all viewers.”  Kishio Suga, essay Between ‘being’ and ‘nothingness’ (2005)

The pairing of Glasgow based artist Karla Black (b. 1972) and Japanese artist Kishio Suga (b.1944) is inspired in terms of the questions raised about how we experience the world and the entire arena of Contemporary Art. A New Order is the first in a proposed series of exhibitions placing the work of Scottish contemporary artists in an international context. It is also the first major exhibition of Kishio Suga’s work in the UK, coinciding with his solo exhibition at the Dia Foundation in New York and his retrospective at the Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan. Part of the informal, pioneering, and experimental Mono-ha (“School of Things”) movement in 1960’s and 70’s Japan, Suga’s work incorporates everyday organic and industrial materials including stone, wood, iron, wire, glass, zinc, earth and paraffin wax. “Rejecting representation” and the “illusionism” of Western Art, he presents the viewer with “situations” where materials are placed in a specific location to explore the relationships between them, the surrounding space and the human mind perceiving them.

It’s easy to be dismissive of the plethora of contemporary artists now working with the assemblage of everyday, found objects/ materials and forget that not all Art evolves out of the same ground of intention as that which the 21st Century Art market made fertile. Although they have become synonymous the business of making Art and the Art World business are not the same thing and this exhibition provides a good opportunity to reappraise expectations of how full, empty or poisoned the Contemporary Art chalice might be. Historically Suga represents a different generational, ground breaking spin on re-assembling the world, a “New Order” of seeing,  which I think is at odds with how many viewers today may initially approach this work, having been lulled into material familiarity. The best works in this show from both Black and Suga arguably have their origins in a ground of understanding beyond an instantaneous, fleetingly bright idea or the desirous draw of certain materials. Connections are made holistically through the senses and with the dynamics or tensions of seeing present in each room. This is particularly true of singular works which effectively command the space they occupy.

Kishio Suga Left-Behind Situation 1972/2012 Installation view at Blum & Poe, Los Angeles, 2012
Courtesy of the artist and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo. Photo: Tsuyoshi Satoh

Kishio Suga’s Left-Behind Situation (1972/2012, Stone, steel plate, brick, wire rope) is a very good example. The first thing that hits you is the smell of timber which is powerfully evocative, pieces in natural states contrasted with veneered, manufactured fragments, placed at intersections in a complex matrix of suspended wires. The primary sensation is physical rather than intellectual, which is unexpected in what might seem like purely conceptual territory. Often when encountering art installations we walk in –get the idea and walk out again; there’s nothing to imaginatively reveal itself and its game over once we read the explanatory label beside the work. What made me smile; standing on the threshold of the doorway to this work and my own curiosity was feeling slightly off-kilter. I like it when Art isn’t easy, when it intrigues or disarms me in ways I don’t expect. I don’t want to hear the punchline first or be told what to think or feel about a piece of work, which is why I avoid all text labels in the first instance to see what the work itself has to say. What I discovered in Suga’s Left-Behind Situation was a pleasing sense of precariousness in play, also seen in Interconnected Spaces (2016, Rock and rope) where the weight of a stone contained in its shadow pins down four ropes, tethered to the gallery walls. It’s strangely beautiful in its simplicity and pregnant silence. The placement of this work in the bare room made space for me to stop and pay closer attention to what was around me and where I stood in relation to the work on various levels. I began to notice circular marks on the floor, whether accidental/ residual or intentional it was impossible to say. It felt as though they were stains around where other placed stones may have stood, or perhaps they were marks left by a different artist from an entirely different show. The point was I was curious about everything in that room, including the marks on the wooden floor. The form and texture of the boulder with its aged erosion and dirt expanded my focus, framed by the tension of ropes. When I first stood in the doorway, seeing this work from a distance, I felt as though time had stopped; a moment before the possibility of ropes snapping to potentially fling the stone across the room, so where I stood in relation to it became a question mark. The large boulder felt like a living entity rather than a dead object, an opportunity for the viewer to pause and imaginatively grapple with their relationship to the raw, natural material and the surrounding man-made space. There is something very Zen about this work which doesn’t stand upon words but the dynamics of perception as an infinitely fluid process. The Art work acts as a point of reference rather than the end product representing, describing or symbolising a certain meaning. In many ways Suga’s work strips Art of its Western preoccupations of attributing value and describing meaning, reassembling materials from the real world so that the viewer can compose their own New Order.

Kishio Suga Interconnected Spaces, 2016.Installation view at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, 2016. Courtesy of the artist and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo
Photo: Sam Drake.

In a similar way I remember very clearly my first encounter with Karla Black’s impressive, resonant installation works in the barrel vaulted Hall of GOMA back in 2012 which floored me with their formal structure and fragile delicacy. (See “Writing” tab of archived reviews)There was so much more in play than just an idea or materials extracted from the mundane domesticity enshrined in an empty white space. The raw material of Black’s Art provoked a multitude of questions and associations, engaging all of my senses in a powerful, unanticipated way. Her painstaking, mindful construction inside that particular architecture naturally spawned layers of interpretation and went a long way to dispelling what I usually see as the Turner Prize nominee curse of endorsement. Ideas or technique by themselves are never enough, nor are they very satisfying for the viewer when seen consistently in isolation. Just watch people in contemporary art spaces the world over reacting to the work and then attempting to marry that response to the labelled attribution of value and meaning beside it. Be assured -your guts are never wrong! All Art stands or falls all by itself, regardless of what may be written alongside it.

What my guts told me about Black’s work in that moment was to pay attention- not to the branded ego of the artist (thankfully not present) which is often the only thing on display, but to the very tactile qualities of the chosen material and my relationship to them as a human being standing in that space, as part of a wider world of imagination. There is something very freeing and also grounded about Black’s approach and intentionality, aligned with the meaning of play in human development, drawn from the unconscious. In a low, horizontal work like Better in Form (2016, Cotton wool, kitchen towel) she encourages us to psychologically get down on the floor in terms of the inner child and move into a different state of sense recognition. Part of this derives from the artist’s own memories of play as a small child; contact with water and sand, but that tactile discovery of the world is universal in all human development. The colour, texture and smell of materials are potent triggers, providing immediately tangible ways into works which resist classification; what the artist describes as “almost” sculpture, painting and performance art, “pulling back” the work before it becomes the label. In Black’s own words; “I think of language as an inadequate, primitive tool. The primary function of the work is aesthetic, formal and material. What comes first is colour and form, composition and scale and then a very firm and separate second comes language.”

Before we learn hierarchies of class, culture and attributions of value, as children we all naturally respond to what we can see, hear, touch and smell with spontaneity and desire. Black’s materials; cellophane, ribbon, sellotape, plaster, chalk powder, soil and dominant palette of pastel baby blues, pinks, yellows and greens are non-threatening, comforting invitations to the viewer. They’re not visually or emotionally cold as they anchor the aesthetic to what is tacit. The shimmer of eyeshadow, lip gloss, petroleum jelly or the softness of cotton wool, polythene and powdered paint exist in Black’s pre-gendered world of exploration and discovery. What convinces is the physicality of material as an emotional touchstone, rather than its intellectualisation through language- it’s about human creative process rather than product or the artist as a brand. Black’s work is refreshingly real in that respect; only abstract in the sense that we are preconditioned to regard Art as something belonging to somebody else, divorced from daily life and the instinctual base of learning that is what we are as a species. Having unleashed my Id standing in the doorway of Gallery 3 viewing Black’s Too Much About Home (2016, Cotton Wool, powder paint, plaster powder, cellophane and sellotape), was frustrating because her work invites closer inspection through touch. The installation is grounded on the floor, extending to the ceiling and one wall, inhabiting the space like a growing organism and creating a topography of feeling in the gradated, low relief rise of teased out cotton wool and scattered pink, yellow, blue and green pastel pigment. You can see the imprint of the artist’s footprints into the middle of the work, still fresh from construction.  It’s a soft, cushion of an island with a triptych of paint suspended on cellophane above, hung from a pliable framework of sellotape, reawakening child-like curiosity, instinct and traditional painterly awareness of composition. Crisp, transparent material is contrasted with comforting hues and cloud-like cotton wool, evoking memories of childhood when we weren’t afraid to make anything. In the corridor outside a series of Black’s hung compositions present evolution of mark and form; progressing from the defined structure of cotton wool balls, flattened into a ground for gestural paint marks, Abstract Expressionist-like fields of overlapping pastel colours which then morph into singular sculptural forms; relatively small in relation to the space around them, but quietly commanding all the same. There’s a sense of play and experimentation with the base elements of Art making; colour, form, line and texture within a subtly equal tonal range.

The sculptural form Actually Mark (Cotton wool, balsa wood and eyeshadow) isn’t monumental in the way we might expect; with a totemic pink plinth of modest scale occupying a room all to itself, the certainty of its edges ambiguously fluffed in cotton wool and coloured by impermanent makeup, attended by a smaller familial blue form on guard near the threshold. The way the works speak to each other in terms of form, scale and colour is an imaginative trigger and although the artist denies gender or cultural associations with colour, they are unavoidable in the mind of the viewer; perhaps saying more about human conditioning than the artist’s intent.  Other Civil Words (2016, Polythene, powder paint, plaster powder and thread) is another example where pink and blue pigmentation isolated in knots are collectively suspended above the floor like a silent pause in an opaque web of relationships. The gentle tensions of the material pulled and knotted into formal opposition is fragile, equally poised and tethered inside a still room. There’s a feeling of slight unease, with the possibility of movement should the slightest breath of air or atmospheric change enter the space. It is a surprisingly human and emotive work made from ethereal, mundane materials and elevated; in physical height and by the act of display in the gallery space. Permanence, commemoration and monumentality isn’t the aim or trajectory of Black’s Art. Instead the focus is on the plinth upon which we place our own expectations and constructs which she encourages us to abandon for something arguably more experientially real.

The felt sense and physicality of the materials speaks when standing in the space that Black’s work occupies because the viewer’s imagination is free to fill it. There are no prescribed meanings, although it could be argued that titles dance along that tightrope. Similarly Suga’s use of Japanese ideograms attempt to resist the descriptive labelling of his Art, although in the context of a Western Gallery space arguably there will always be translations and explanations present. (Interestingly a resources room has been provided in this exhibition.) However Suga’s work is essentially about “Activation” in that what is intended is for the “viewer [to start] to think about what it means”, presenting the possibility of multiple layers of human thought and action without spoon fed conclusions. What said this better than any text ever could was the grainy profundity of Suga’s photograph of one of this fieldworks, Condition of Perception (1970, Silver gelatin print). This documentary image of the residual mark left by a stream of water down a residential Tokyo Street is, even in its spilled state, eternally fluid. That line of water invites your eye deeper into that fixed, two dimensional, but ever expanding space. In that moment captured on film there is something incredibly moving and humane about that vision, even though it is one step removed in being a record of a human action with a natural element in play. My immediate response to this photograph was overwhelmingly emotional. Significantly I felt the possibility of what was being said and the difficulty of communicating a temporary action or art work was overcome by the eye/ mind composing the image and activating the shutter. What shone through the image was intention, openness and hope, placing trust in the viewer to find what they will in that fluid movement between an element of Nature and human nature, which is hardwired to seek understanding.This is an exhibition which challenges the viewer; “I’m looking but am I really seeing- what could that element be? I want to unravel it.”

https://www.nationalgalleries.org/whatson/on-now-coming-soon/karla-black-and-kishio-suga/

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