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 

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