Art for All: British Socially Committed Art

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During the early and middle decades of the Twentieth Century, the tradition of social realism in the West extended the realism, naturalism and social realism schools of the preceding century but with a more explicitly advocatory role. Inspired by the Russian Revolution, the foundation of the USSR and development of Socialist art in Mexico, these artists had specific ideals to work towards, with the hope that such changes could be enacted in the West. Christine Lindey’s Art for All documents the work of British socially committed artists working from 1930s to 1962 – the height of the period when social realism was disapproved of by the British establishment and when realism was under attack from Modernists.

It should be said that Art for All is a necessary book, exploring as it does the overlooked history of politically committed left-wing art during the mid-century era. In the ideological war of the period, realism decisively lost to Modernism. Consequently, the true span of art of this period has been obscured because of a concentration on explaining the development of Modernism over this period. The efforts of social realists during the period are irrelevant for tracing the development of abstraction and Modernist schools, thus they have been dropped in most accounts. Art history is more École de Paris than École de Manchester.

There is the question of quality. In many historical accounts the only glimpse of inter-war realism in Britain one gets is Stanley Spencer’s figure paintings. Yet this obscures the fact that Spencer himself was an eccentric for the period. Spencer is one of the more engaging artists of the period and his Modernist credentials make him acceptable for Modernist-inclined studies. But Spencer was neither typical nor representative of realism in Britain. In some ways the realism of the artists in Art for All is more representative of the blend of Modernism and realism that characterised non-academic figurative painting in the period.

Lindey describes the socially-committed artist as a stylistic realist with some of the following attributes: documenting working people and ordinary life; highlighting specific social inequities; campaigning in favour of pacifism; agitating for improvement in working/living conditions of the poor; advocating adoption of socialism or socialistic policies; opposing the British Empire; opposing Fascism; supporting Socialist nations. While Lindey rightly stresses the gender-equal aspirations for Marxism, she leaves unmentioned the movement’s hostility towards the traditional family. One of the principle foundations of socialist states (deriving primarily from Engels) is the destruction of the family as a root of iniquitous inheritance, private loyalty and traditional morality.

Lindey’s list of artists is assembled transparently (excluding left-wing Modernists and the intermittently committed) and the spread of artists seems representative. Artists selected include Peter de Francia, Priscilla Thornycroft, Paul Hogarth, Clive Branson, Cliff Rowe, James Boswell, Josef Herman, Eva Frankfurther, George Fullard and Ruskin Spear. There is no doubting the seriousness of these artists. Many endured poverty for their principles or imprisonment for their conscientious objection. Felicia Browne died fighting in the Spanish Civil War. Lindey does well to cover the problems artists faced to survive and make work. World War II was the first time when Social Realists felt their anti-Fascist position matched their country’s policies, though many were ambivalent until the invasion of the USSR made it a clear the war was an anti-Fascist enterprise. Some artists enlisted, others became war artists or designed posters. Exhibitions selling low-cost prints proved both artistically and financially satisfying, spreading the word and allowing ordinary people the chance to own art. The book mentions the endless cycle of May Day demonstrations, Spanish Republican fundraising exhibitions, banner painting for protest marches and the role of organisations such as Artists International Association and publications such as Left Review and The Daily Worker. In addition to the official art of the USSR, British realists took as their models Grosz, Dix, Kollwitz and the Neue Sachlichkeit, Mexican Muralists and graphics, Frans Masereel and art of previous generations, such as Daumier, Meunier and others.

The twin blows of 1956 (the revelation of Stalin’s terror and the Invasion of Hungary) led to the haemorrhaging of support for Socialism. The UK and US support for the plurality of Modernism undermined realism stylistically, while the increasing influence of US popular culture undermined Socialist values and post-war material prosperity undercut the Marxist economic case. The 1950s and 1960s marked the long decline of social realism in the UK. While France and Italy had strong Communist parties, the already weak British branch rapidly diminished into insignificance, leaving British socially committed artists isolated morally and financially. Leftist artists had ambivalent attitudes to socialist realism. Some maintained it was an ideal only to be undertaken in Socialist states; others claimed it infringed on artists’ independent courses towards raising class consciousness. The charge that social (and Socialist) realism was a political imposition which contrasted to the true freedom artistic Modernism offered became a difficult claim to refute. The point that most people preferred realist art was also being quickly eroded by changes in taste (or fashion).

The point that the School of London painters “convey the malaise of the helpless, alienated individual” is the common Marxist accusation. What the Marxist means by this is that the ordinary man has to deal with life whereas the middle-class bohemian can indulge his emotional frailties. Surely the point about existential art is that it applies to every person living in the world, regardless of class and background. Why cannot the working man address the acute internal fear and doubt he experiences? Why should a baron but not a bricklayer relate to this type of art? Opening the door to matters of private revelation, inner searching, individual reflection and philosophical contemplation contravenes the Marxist’s social-economic model, leaving the subject dangerous latitude in matters of private self-interested morality and personal conduct. Refusal to suborn discussion to the Marxist level leads to general attacks, of which this is a common one: Comrade, the working man is a cheerful capable fellow who requires more labour councils and does not deserve to have his head bothered with this personal angst nonsense. This displays the Marxist’s terrible fear of individuals dwelling upon the meaning of life and concluding that Marxism does not provide what they require. It is extra evidence of the paternalistic attitude of Marxists towards to subjects of its charity.

By and large, if one accepts the premise of the approach, then politics are not too intrusive in the narrative. Even so, at times the relentless class warfare can grate. Making jibes at a society portrait compared to portraits of working women is not any kind of considered criticism – it is inverted snobbery and lessens one’s respect for the author’s judgment in matters of discrimination. It would have been possible to engage a debate on aesthetic merits of portraits but serious debate is never entertained.

Illustrations are plentiful and enlightening. On matters of fact, Art for All is informative, using a broad range of sources to provide documentation of the activities of artists. Interpretatively, the book is less reliable. Lindey does not given an unbiased presentation of the parallels between art of National Socialism and Socialist Realism, claiming that the latter allowed more variety in subject and style and was therefore entirely dissimilar. Actually, it is only a toleration of more stylistic variation that distinguishes Socialist Realism. In Fascist and Socialist states we find the bureaucratic management of public art, persecution of dissident Modernist art (“degenerate formalism”), imposition of punitive sanctions on artists, complete control of artist associations, publications and education, all directed towards the production of politically directed realist/heroic art. The two authoritarian ideologies converge in their utilitarian functionalist attitudes towards art.

So, is the art any good? Some is appealing and thoughtful. Herman is striking; de Francia is a skilled painter (though too close to Guttaso); Fullard’s realistic sculpture is effective; Rowe’s compositions are strong and well handled, as seen in his murals; Spear is a top-drawer portraitist. Much is indifferent; some is awful. It would be a difficult proposition to suggest that this art deserves a place in a general art history, other than as isolated examples of the currents of political and realist art. The truth is that there is nothing really compelling or exciting about this art. One cannot help thinking that all the artists who were genuinely ambitious and committed to art over politics had already joined the Modernist movement, leaving the social realists rather shorthanded when it came to the ability to make first-rate art. In an open market of art, people buy more posters of Picasso, Mondrian, Van Gogh, Monet, Rothko and Chagall than realist art. The human appetite craves pungent tastes, originality, eccentricity and élan – all the accoutrements of bourgeois formalism and individualistic self-absorption, if one were to get Marxist about it. For all the social realists’ grousing about capitalistic individualism, one El Greco or Rembrandt on their side would have won over legions of supporters. While the social realists have been unfairly written out of history, the evidence seems to be that they lost to the Modernists – in part – because they failed to recruit and retain the best artists.

Christine Lindey, Art for All: British Socially Committed Art from the 1930s to the Cold War, Artery Publications, 2018, paperback, 224pp, col. illus., £20

© 2019 Alexander Adams

To view my art and books visit: www.alexanderadams.art

Edited on 26 Feb. 2019: grammatical errors

Aesthetic Life: Beauty and Art in Modern Japan

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The performance of beauty by women – and artistic representations of that performance – during the Meiji period (1868-1912) is the subject of new academic study by Miya Elise Mizuta Lippit.

Bijin is a beautiful person, most usually by the Meiji era (and later) a beautiful woman. Bijinga is fine art featuring beautiful women. The bijinga genre was unofficially inaugurated through its presence in the 1907 Ministry of Education Art Exhibition, though it was grounded in developments over preceding decades. Lippit states that the shift in definition of bijin from a gender-neutral term to one being exclusively applicable to women is in part related to Japanese responses to foreign ideas. This accompanied other ideas, such as division of art into fine art and applied art and even the idea of a national style. “Just as the concept of a Japanese-style art (Nihonga) as such did not exist until artists started creating in the Western or non-traditional Japanese style (yōga), there was no totalizing concept of the artistic process until the modern encounter with Western aesthetics.” She concludes: “The bijin should not only be viewed, but its layers of pure covering – adornment on adornment – read as a statement on Japanese artistic style itself, a visual style that appears to have achieved a victory over the “spirit” of content: bijinga, an art that celebrates the aesthetic self-production of Japan – Japan as an artifact in the encounter between East and West.”

The birth of Nihonga and bijinga came about just as some Japanese felt the need to draw distinctions which separated its art from Western pictorial influences, which marks the intersection between nationalism and aesthetics. The categorisation of aspects of Japanese culture that had previously already existed in art could be considered an attempt to purify Japanese art and to clarify Japanese ethnic distinctiveness. Cultural critics of the late Meiji era theorised that Nihonga was characterised by idealism, in opposition to the supposed realism of Western art. Yōga cannot – because of its Western influence and greater realism – produce bijinga, which must be both Japanese in style and idealistic (and idealising) in character.

The term “geisha” appeared during the period of japonisme in the West (c. 1860-1930). Strictly speaking, a female performer and hostess and (slightly less strictly speaking) a prostitute of the Shin Yoshiwara red-light district of Tokyo, “geisha” came to be used in the West as any “beautiful Japanese woman”. For Westerners not informed about the original meaning of the word, this seems a casual elision rather than an intentional conflation of beautiful woman and prostitute. During this period, the Japanese woman as bijin who exists as a living work of art became a persistent subject for art and literature both inside and outside Japan.

The geographic and demographic distance between Japan and Europe/USA meant that what was known in the West about Japan was principally through its art. The sophistication of Japanese art and visual culture marked it out in the eyes of Westerners as a fellow civilised nation – if not an equal then certainly one worthy of respect. Visitors to Japan sometimes found the difference between the images they were used to and the reality of the extraordinarily elaborate artificiality of Japanese cosmetics repelled them. “Self-inflicted ugliness” was how one outspoken chronicler described Japanese cosmetic practice. Other travellers were simply disappointed by the reality of Japanese women, having been primed by extravagant praise.

Just as a complete woman was seen to be combination of innate qualities and effort of society (in the forms of education and culture) and effort of the individual (in the form of the acquisition of admirable skills and exercise of informed judgment), so it seems the bijin could come into being as a composite of natural beauty and unnatural beauty. It was through the grace of nature, the correct application of cosmetics and costume and exercise of decorum that the bijin came into existence. Thus when the artist of bijinga used both the model and ideal, he too created a composite.

One could also mention here the Japanese aesthetic appreciation of nature as perfected in mixtures of raw nature and tamed nature – like the bijin, that other prominent conjunction of natural and artificial beauty. There is certainly much to be written drawing out the parallels between bijin and distinctive gardens and temple grounds, all long cultivated and much celebrated as typical of Japan. In the bijin, we see the performance of beauty in an effort that is willed by both individual and the society of which she is a part. Once again – it cannot be stressed too strongly – the bijin is both self-actualisation and a product of aesthetic culture, one who necessarily fuses nature and artifice in a social performance of beauty.

In a publication for the 1904 St Louis World Fair, to which Japan sent 350 “geisha girls” as part of its pavilion, it is the nation of Japan alone that is represented by a women’s face in a montage of national/ethnic types. All other ethnic types in the illustration are represented by men. “Strategically nurtured as one of the images of the collective people as Japan was being constituted as a national subject, the nation of Japan performed its aesthetic self-production through the figure of the bijin, turning itself into a feminine artifact.” It is interesting that Japan would choose to present herself in such a way, eschewing the priestly and samurai classes and the iconic images of the Noh or Kabuki theatre, which were greatly esteemed in the country. It is the most pacific of national archetypes which we see so willingly presented by the Japanese and consumed by the West with so much alacrity. Just as the brief Russo-Japanese War was ongoing, it was the geisha who were sent by the Japanese government to enchant and beguile Americans.

In the bijin there is a necessary conflation of the real and the imaginary to produce a synthetic work of art – a melding of the two realms. It was in the figure of woman (or Woman) that an attempt was made to synthesise the natural and artificial, the actual and ideal, the universal and specific and the present and timeless, in what could be seen as what could be seen as a national achievement. The bijin could be considered a work of genius embodying national spirit and an expression of refinement of two thousand years of civilisation. The degree to which demographic isolation of Japan bred a cultural and ethnic difference from neighbouring nations – and how that influenced national standards of female beauty – is not examined in this book.

The bijinga seems to have been a matter of isolated single figures (in full-figure and portrait formats, with limited background) rather than what in West we would call genre pictures. The banning of the publication of nudes by the Japanese government in 1888 circumscribed shunga (erotic art) but may not have had a noticeable impact upon bijinga. Traditionally, the Japanese had no category of the nude as a self-contained subject. Bijinga is notably not a field of the nude figure, though this matter is only briefly touched upon here. The female nude when it appeared in Meiji art seems to have been more prominent in yōga, with its Western categories of the nude, rather than bijinga. The Japanese of the Meiji period, when introduced to nudes in Western art, adopted the artistic term of rataiga – “naked body”. This description precisely fails to convey the Western distinction between nudity and nakedness, the naked and the nude.

The author addresses the role of photographically illustrated bijin journals around 1910 and discussion of bijin by Japanese and foreign critics. There are some close readings of Japanese novels including of bijin figures. Lippit notes the importance of bijin fūzoku, namely the attendant customs, conventions and attributes of the bijin in bijinga. These allow viewers to read the pictures in a way in which our iconography allows us to interpret the symbolism of art. Some readers may wish that Lippit had further developed the issue of the conflict between timeless beauty of the bijin and the influence of ryūkō (fashion or trend). Lippit notes the etymological link between uses of ryūkō as “fashion” and “disease”. “Disease and fashion shared the characteristics of arriving from the outside, spreading rapidly, and mostly affecting urban areas. [..] It retained the sense of a dangerous current that could, in passing through a culture, potentially infect it en masse.”

This book is an absorbing study of the origins and uses of bijin in Japanese art of the Meiji period. It will feed curiosity about this subject and prompt more academic and popular studies of this fascinating topic.

 

Miya Elise Mizuta Lippit, Aesthetic Life: Beauty and Art in Modern Japan, Harvard University Asia Center, 2019, paperback, 315pp, 45 col. illus., $45, ISBN 978 0 674 237330 8

 

View my art and books here: www.alexanderadams.art

© Alexander Adams 2019

Two Lives in Colour: Fred Dubery & Joanne Brogden

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[Image: Fred Dubery, Anemones, oil on board, 30.5 x 25.5cm. © The Estate of Fred Dubery and Joanne Brogden]

The paintings of Fred Dubery ARCA, Hon. NEAC (1926-2011) are woven into this book which recounts the story of two lives, his and his wife’s, Joanne Brogden (d. 2013). Dubery studied at Croydon School of Art in 1944-8, then at the Royal College (1950-3). Studying under Rodrigo Moynihan he became friends with fellow students Carel Weight and Ruskin Spear. He taught at Walthamstow School of Art from 1958. While at Walthamstow, Dubery taught Peter Greenaway, who contributes his memories of his tutor to this book. Other friends assisted author Ian Collins with their memories. It was at Walthamstow, in 1960, that Dubery met fashion tutor Joanne Brogden. She had previously studied at Harrow School of Art and the RCA. Brogden was admired her skill and meticulous eye for detail. She went on to become a lecturer and later head of the fashion department at the RCA. (Dubery also taught occasionally at the RCA.) Always dressed immaculately, she became a respected teacher and author and well-connected figure in the British fashion world of the 1960s and 1970s. She retired from the RCA in 1989. The couple married in 1965. Dubery later taught at the Royal Academy Schools, becoming Professor of Perspective in 1984. Although he exhibited at RA Summer Exhibitions from 1950 onwards, he was not elected ARA or RA. He was elected a member of NEAC in 1956.

When the couple took a country house in Stowmarket, Suffolk Dubery had ample opportunities to paint congenial subjects both indoors and outdoors. The couple spent Easters in France while they were teaching, spending longer spells there after their retirements. They also visited Italy and Belgium. Much of Dubery’s art celebrated the quiet comforts of domestic life. The paintings seek to capture Dubery’s pleasure and transmit it to others. His most frequent subjects were landscapes of Suffolk and France, garden views, flowers, still-lifes and interiors. Some of the best outdoor paintings are the pictures including frameworks in the form of fences, gates, scaffolding, beach greenhouse frames, aviaries and other regular linear structures. He painted portraits but most of his figures are part of interior pictures rather than sole or dominant motifs. Some of the portraits were commissioned. Nudes appear only rarely. His Seated Model (u.d.) is a fine painting in the tradition of Sickert’s Camden Town series of female nudes. A Sickertian approach is also apparent in Dubery’s views of Venice.

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[Image: Fred Dubery, Arsenale, Venice, oil on board, 71.1x 35.6cm. © The Estate of Fred Dubery and Joanne Brogden]

His style ranges between realism – at times close to the photo-derived realism popular in the late 1960s early 1970s – to the looser application of paint used by the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists. Paintings reminiscent of the French Post-Impressionists and the Intimists Bonnard and Vuillard are commonplace in Dubery’s output. In this book no dates are given for paintings. This makes it difficult to discern whatever developments there were in Dubery choice of subjects and technique. There are few direct quotes from Dubery to reflect his views on art (his own and that of others).   The book includes some fashion drawings and animal sculptures by Brogden, the latter made after her retirement.

The couple lived a full life, travelling, socialising and viewing and making art until the end. After Dubery’s death, Brogden dedicated herself to the preservation and promotion of his art. The couple’s joint grave is next to that of the DJ John Peel, a fellow resident of Stowmarket.

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[Image: Fred Dubery, The Straw Hat, oil on board, 40.6×30.5cm. © The Estate of Fred Dubery and Joanne Brogden]

Most of the book’s illustrated pictures are from the estate of the couple, now owned by the East Anglia Art Fund. The EAAF now sells the art from the estate of the couple to fund scholarships for art and fashion students from East Anglia.

While the book is very good on the life and times of the couple, their milieu and memories of friends, it is light on discussion of Dubery’s art. Perhaps it would be best to consider this book a lavishly illustrated celebration of their lives rather than a painter’s monograph. Let us hope that the EAAF sets aside some funds to publish a traditional artist monograph on Dubery and a biography of Brogden to complement this enjoyable introduction to their lives.

 

Ian Collins, Two Lives in Colour: Fred Dubery & Joanne Brogden, Unicorn, 2019, hardback, 159pp, fully illus., £25, ISBN 978 1 911604 73 0

Forthcoming exhibitions of art by Fred Dubery: East Gallery, Norwich University of the Arts, Norwich (22 January-16 March 2019); Coningsby Gallery, London (10-19 June 2019); Holt Festival, Holt (20-27 July 2019). Proceeds of sales support EAAF’s student scholarship programme.

 

© Alexander Adams 2019

View my art and books at www.alexanderadams.art

David Lynch as Artist

David Lynch in his studio ©David Lynch

[Image: David Lynch in his studio ©David Lynch]

The film director David Lynch (b. 1946) started his career as an artist and trained at art school before switched to cinema. Since his youth he has made art and in recent years this art – painting, drawing, photography and other mediums – has been recognised in numerous exhibitions. The current exhibition David Lynch: Someone is in my House at Bonnefantenmuseum, Maastricht (30 November 2018-28 April 2019) brings together a wide range of Lynch’s fine art from his students years up until today. This exhibition is reviewed from the catalogue.

Interested in art from an early age, Lynch studied painting at Museum School, Boston in 1964 and transferred to Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia in 1966. At this more progressive institution, Lynch developed his ambitions as a creator. He recalled in an interview that while he was painting some grass, he imagined the grass being animated. This event was something that led him towards film. His first short films varied between animation, live action and a mixture of the two. Six Men Getting Sick (1967) was an animation projected on to a painted assemblage with plaster heads, which was filmed. It is the recording of the animated painting/assemblage that has become the film Six Men Getting Sick that we know today. From this point onwards, Lynch considered painting as an approach that could include sculpture, film projection, found objects and other material. These are not so much hybrid works as mongrel ones – crossbreeds of ambiguous appearance, uncertain origin, unclear taxonomy and undeniable vitality.

David Lynch, Six Men Getting Sick, 1967, film still, courtesy ABSURDA

[Image: David Lynch, Six Men Getting Sick (1967), film still, courtesy ABSURDA]

In 1970 Lynch went to study at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles. At this point his creative energy was increasing focussed on films, such as The Grandmother (1970) then Eraserhead (1977, started 1972) – projects that occupied his time at the AFI and the immediate period after he left. There is relatively little large-scale work from around 1968 up until after 2000. At this time Lynch was busiest with directing. After 2006, the time when Lynch’s last feature film (Inland Empire) was released, art became his primary field of creativity activity again. It is fair to classify Lynch of recent years as more of an artist than a director, although his recent work on the third series of Twin Peaks showed he is still as original and masterful as he ever was as a director.

The early drawings are small, in pencil or ballpoint on standard size sheets of paper. These drawings of the late 1960s are typical of the period, working along the same lines as pop artists such as Richard Lindner and counter culture art, also art made in the wake of Surrealism. The mixture of pop culture imagery and subversive counter culture/underground attitude was common at the time. The art of Francis Bacon falls into this overlap. Lynch acknowledges Bacon as a major influence on his art, especially after Lynch visited Bacon’s exhibition at the Marlborough Gallery, New York in 1968. In the art (and also cinema) of Lynch we find the following Baconian elements: isolation of figures, predominantly dark background (from Bacon of the 1940s up to 1956), use of figural deformity, an atmosphere of emotional tension or distress, cages/tanks/frameworks as devices of confinement, use of drapes as backdrops, the eruption of carnal imagery, signs of violence, combination of domesticity and theatricality, the imperative of intense psychological trauma and the spectacle of sensation. Beyond the elements described above, it was the example of Bacon as an artist willing to explore the dark and alarming aspects of human existence in a striking, sumptuous and often beautiful manner in art that created a powerful impact which gave Lynch permission to explore his dark imagination in the area of fine art.

The placing of characters on a black ground (or immersed in darkness) is something common to Lynch and Bacon. Lynch has said, “Color to me is too real. It’s limiting. It doesn’t allow too much of a dream. The more you throw black into a color, the more dreamy it gets.” This is very apparent in the paintings of 1968 and 1988, as well as the later lithographs.

David Lynch, Woman With Tree Branch, 1968, oil and acrylic on canvas, courtesy Rodger LaPelle and Christine McGinnis

[Image: David Lynch, Woman With Tree Branch (1968), oil and acrylic on canvas, courtesy Rodger LaPelle and Christine McGinnis]

The large format of the paintings and expansive areas of black in them immerse us in darkness. Lynch wishes us to be consumed by the dark. Lynch is keen to keep in touch with the basic elements of existence: darkness, fire, smoke, soil, lightning, wood, water, oil, flesh. This matter prevents visions from becoming insubstantial or capriciously fantastical. This desire to keep material real is evident in the use of found objects and non-art materials which appear consistently in Lynch’s assemblage-constructions. The incorporation of found objects into life-size assemblage-paintings makes them similar to funk-art installations by Ed Kienholz. They certainly share a (critical) fascination with Americana, centring on the seediness of common culture.

David Lynch, untitled (Lodz), 2000, archival pigment print, courtesy the artist (2)

[Item: David Lynch, Untitled (Lodz) (2000), archival pigment print, courtesy the artist]

Since the early 1970s, Lynch has taken photographs of abandoned industrial installations. He was inspired by the industry of Philadelphia and this inspirational encounter with artificial environments (contrasting so strongly with Lynch’s outdoors childhood in Montana and Idaho) carried over to the culverts and overpasses of Los Angeles which Lynch visited while at film school. These became the setting for Eraserhead. While on location in various places (including England and Poland), Lynch has recorded abandoned factories, warehouses, refineries, pumping stations and other buildings in black-and-white photographs. Some are included in this catalogue, though the photographs have previously been exhibited en masse and reproduced more extensively in other publications.

Uncanniness comes to the fore in a series of modified vintage erotic photographs. The original photographs were taken in the Nineteenth Century and have been republished since then. Manipulated by Lynch, the unclothed figures have become truncated, distorted and deformed. They engage in obscure activity, themselves obscure and sinister presences. They are ghostly – not dissimilar to spiritualist photographs of 1900-1920. These are the closest to deliberately nightmarish images, created to unsettle and disturb. In recent decades, Lynch has made a number of series of photographs of nude women. None of those photographs have been included in this exhibition.

There are two series of lithographs that Lynch has made at the Paris studio of Idem. The first was a series of abstract designs in three colours and was a short series; the second is figural and much more extensive – continuing intermittently to this day. The initial three-colour lithographs were derived from the post-it drawings of the 1980s. They have a Keith Haring feeling – a bit Pop, a bit graffiti, a bit graphic design. They are the sort of designs one would find on an inner sleeve of New Wave LP from 1989. They seem decorative and undirected. Lynch’s non-photographic art needs the compulsion of the figure, figural element or animal to be at its best. These lithographs (and related drawings) are the least successful of the series Lynch has made.

David Lynch, Someone is in My House, 2014, lithograph, courtesy the artist and Item Editions

[Image: David Lynch, Someone is in My House (2014), lithograph, courtesy the artist and Idem Editions]

The later lithographs are much more successful. In 2007 Lynch stopped Lynch making colour lithographs and started drawing on stones using only black ink; the imagery included figures, animals, buildings and shadowy landscapes. This series has continued to this day. The prints employ the full range of artistic effects that traditional lithography is capable. Lynch has developed into a skilled lithographer, exploiting the capacities of stone lithography as a platform for his imagery. The sooty washes of ink diluted by turpentine make swirling clouds of dust and smoke. The scratching out of ink gives a graphic bite of light lines and provides relief to these dark scenes. The dabbing of fingerprints impart a touch of earnestness though not clumsiness and increase our engagement by adding tactility. As with other works, fragmentary phrases – be they snippets of dialogue or authorial commentary – appear in the pictures. These lithographs fit closely to Lynch’s large paintings in terms of appearance, imagery and tone. We witness incidents of violence and human contact (humorous, passionate, bizarre, inexplicable) in shadowy settings. These black lithographs are consistently the most effective pieces of art Lynch has produced to date.

In watercolours (primarily in greys and black) bleeding and soaking treat whole sheets of papers as objects. The scratching and abrasion of paper highlight the textural qualities of the materials. The watercolour Fight on a Hill (c. 2008-9) shares certain characteristics – not least the strange ambivalent tone somewhere between horrific thuggery and slapstick knockabout – with Goya’s Fight with Cudgels (1819-23) from his Black Paintings. Goya’s Black Paintings have a predominantly dark coloration and use of black, the artist’s use of grotesque and troubling imagery and ambiguity of subject matter all parallel Lynch’s ink drawings and lithographs. It seems that Lynch has few meaningful connections to contemporary artists and that his art has developed in relative isolation, with him exhibiting relatively rarely until the 2000s. Most of Lynch’s social and artistic milieu is centred on the film world rather than the fine-art world. It would be hard to assign Lynch to any current art movement.

Comedy plays an important part in Lynch’s creative output. This comes in the form of non sequiturs, colloquial dialogue or comments laced with underlying oddness or menace. There is a terrible form of black humour in scenes of catastrophic injury or deformity accompanied by laconic commentary. Part of the humour comes from the severity of the physical evidence and the mildness of the commentary. Often it is hard to judge the tone the texts – lacking context and verbal delivery – and this makes leaves viewers feeling wrong footed. The comic precision of titles such as This Man was Shot 0.9502 Seconds Ago (2004) recalls the baroque extravagance of Dalí’s titles.

David Lynch, Change The Fuckin Channel Fuckface, 2008-2009, mixed media on panel, courtesy the artist

[Image: David Lynch, Change The Fuckin Channel Fuckface (2008-9), mixed media on panel, courtesy the artist]

Another example of black humour is Change the Fuckin’ Channel Fuckface (2008-9), where a pathetic but sinister figure of a woman seated on a bed faces us and speaks. The text in the picture reads “woman with broken neck and electric knife speaks to her husband”. We are in a scene with narrative content. We are in the position of the husband, threatened by his angry and dangerous wife. Drawing an analogy with cinema is obvious but it seems a valid approach in this case. We have characters with emotional charge between them, dramatic tension, black humour, incidental details, a domestic setting and a degree of realism.

Lynch sometimes reaches for the cosmic. This can be seen in the films Eraserhead, Dune and The Straight Story. In his art it comes in the form of vortices and starry skies. His wastelands, perhaps inspired the Californian desert near Lynch’s home, also have a timeless quality. (The haunting isolation of the desert can be seen near the end of Lost Highway.) There is certainly work to be done by researchers on describing exactly how American Lynch is as a maker of fine art. In some respects he conforms to the stereotype of an American artist – a fascination with pop culture, American vernacular speech, imagery processed through the mass media, the American landscape, casual violence – and other respects he is a European artist in his ambiguity, his allusions to past art, evident fascination with deep existential horror and his refusal to accept simple answers. In this mixture, he is close to Abstract Expressionist behaviour, tastes and allegiances, though his art has little in common with theirs.

The abstract has appeared in Lynch’s films in the form of ambiguous spaces, starry skies, unknown terrain, water, fire and smoke. Lynch uses abstract elements in his cinema for reasons of pacing, atmosphere and symbolism. This carries over into his art. One only needs to think of the interludes in Twin Peaks series one and two, when see trees in the wind or a hanging traffic light against the night sky.

David Lynch, Boy Lights Fire, 2010, mixed media on cardboard, courtesy the artist. Collection Bonnefantenmuseum

[Image: David Lynch, Boy Lights Fire (2010), mixed media on cardboard, courtesy the artist. Collection Bonnefantenmuseum]

How accomplished is the art here? Generally, the art is effective. Lynch is intelligent, thoughtful and resourceful and judges his art well. His proclivities are very individual and not every piece will please viewers – with some pieces too peculiar, forced, comic or macabre for viewers. There is art here that verges on the trivial. The drawing on the inside of matchbook covers (Lynch is a compulsive smoker) could also fall into this territory but they do not. The common imagery recurs but there seems greater attention and a willingness to reach an unexpected outcome.

One of the few direct connections to Lynch’s primary professional career is evident in the drawing on the front page of the first draft of Blue Velvet. The question arises: how does our familiarity with the films of Lynch influence our reading of the art? This is difficult to answer. If one knows the films and television of Lynch then one can find clear references in the art. The catalogue texts do not address the crossover between Lynch’s cinema and his art. This is probably wise. The important motivation behind presenting the art is to establish the seriousness of the Lynch as an artist and the nature and extent of his artistic output as an independent oeuvre.

For enthusiasts of Lynch’s films the links to his art are obvious. For example, Lynch from his earliest years not only enjoyed making props for his films but insisted on making materials for the films, treating the mise en scene as inhabitable paintings. The lamps in the exhibition are part of Lynch’s activity stretching back to Eraserhead, Elephant Man and Blue Velvet. The flickering lamp is one of the motifs of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, as found in the unwelcoming diner in Deer Meadow. The strobe effect has been a staple of Lynch’s imagery from the earliest years. Lynch made a short film of himself making a lamp in 2011. Even when Lynch the filmmaker had the funds to pay for expert prop makers, he chose to make his own, despite the heavy demands of directing. The dual practices of small-filmmaker as jack-of-all-trades and artist-as-director inform Lynch’s continuing desire to involve himself in prop making. Settings from Lynch’s films do appear in his art but those pictures have not been selected for this exhibition – perhaps because a curatorial intention to establish Lynch’s art as separate from his films.

As with his films, Lynch does not provide verbal interpretations of art works. Although he talks in general terms about how he works and his preferences, he eschews any discussion of the content of individual pictures. The catalogue authors do not examine specific works but write in general terms about Lynch’s art. That art is various, including prints (lithographs), original photographs (direct and manipulated), adapted vintage photographs, drawings, watercolours, oil paintings with assemblage, lamp sculptures and stills from films. Much of the art is undated, though it can be broken down into periods by style and material. Likewise, a fair amount is untitled.

There are a few slips in the catalogue. Idem Studio in Paris is repeatedly referred to as “Item Studio” and “Premonition Following an Evil Deed” becomes “…Evil Dead”. Generally, the catalogue is accurate and clear. The catalogue is a very informative and rounded view of Lynch’s activity as an artist and is likely to advance the cause of Lynch as an artist. Lynch is driven by deep fascinations and private engagements. The fact that this is clear in all of Lynch’s art, from adolescence to recent years, regardless of audience, demonstrates the seriousness of his practice. These are the hallmarks of a committed artist.

 

Stijn Huijts (ed.), David Lynch: Someone is in my House, Prestel, 2019, 304pp, fully col. illus., hardback, $65/£49.99, ISBN 978 3 7913 8470 2

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

See my art and books here: www.alexanderadams.art

Picasso: Blue and Rose Periods

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The Young Picasso: Blue and Rose Periods, Fondation Beyeler, Basel (3 February-26 May 2019 ***** EXTENDED TO 16 JUNE 2019 *****) is an exhibition which explores a period of rapid development from 1901 to 1907 in the art of Pablo Picasso (1881-1973). It traces changes from painterly Post-Impressionism through the Blue, Rose, Gósol periods up to and including the proto-Cubism. This exhibition is from the catalogue Picasso: The Blue and Rose Periods.

The Birth of the Blue Period

The earliest art in the exhibition was made in Madrid, where Picasso was briefly based. He was attempting to launch an art-orientated publication called Arte Joven, one of a wave of European avant-garde art journals aimed at celebrating Symbolism, Art Nouveau and Post-Impressionism. While in Madrid Picasso heard of the death of his artist friend Carlos Casagemas in Paris. Depressed, Casagemas had invited friends to a restaurant where he attempted to kill his girlfriend then shot himself dead. The event preyed on Picasso’s imagination and later influenced his art.

Picasso’s art in early 1901 is an amalgam of Post-Impressionism and Symbolism, painted in a bravura manner. When he arrived in Paris in May he agreed his first exhibition in Paris, at Ambroise Vollard’s gallery in June 1901. The exhibition starts with portraits (including Yo Picasso (1901)) inspired by Van Gogh and El Greco. Subjects ranged from nightclub demi-monde types to self-portraits. The Vollard show exhibition launched Picasso’s public career in Paris and received good notices. Alongside Francisco Iturrino, Picasso exhibited 64 paintings and an unrecorded number of drawings. Some show evidence of being very hastily (and carelessly) painted, for example Femme dans la loge (1901). Most of the art was made over the course of a month before the exhibition.

In the summer, freed from the pressure of making pictures for his June exhibition, Picasso turned to the subject of Casagemas. Four critical works in the evolution of the blue period are included in the exhibition: two versions of the dead Casagemas, The Burial of Casagemas (1901) and a scene of mourning. It was the public suicide of Picasso’s friend Carlos Casagemas that inspired the use of blue to indicate his grief and led to a new preoccupation with the tragedy of life. The demi-monde gives way to the outright destitute and impoverished as subjects: beggars, prostitutes, cripples, mistletoe sellers. These blue paintings did not sell when exhibited in 1902, unlike the colourful paintings of the Vollard exhibition. Picasso spent January to October 1902 in Barcelona with his parents, unable to afford rent on a room in Paris. For the only time in his life Picasso was genuinely poor. Many paintings are made over old pictures because the artist could not sell much; he had little money for new materials. Paintings were also made on cardboard for cost reasons.

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[Image: Pablo Picasso, La Vie (1903), The Cleveland Museum of Art, Schenkung Hanna Fund. © Succession Picasso / 2018, ProLitteris, Zürich Foto: © The Cleveland Museum of Art]

The exhibition includes his masterpiece of La Vie (1903). From sketches and X-rays, we know that when this picture was started it featured Picasso and a model in a studio with a painting in the background. Later the face of the man was changed to that of Casagemas. The woman and child on the right were also added. Interpretations vary: “(1) an allegory of sacred and profane love conveyed through the opposition between the standing naked couple on the left and the mother and child on the right; (2) as a symbolic representation of the cycle of life, progressing from the infant to the cadaverous woman in the lower center; and (3) as a working-class couple facing the hazards of real life, including potential pregnancy and venereal disease.” John Richardson, Picasso’s biographer, suggests that poet friend Max Jacob’s fascination with tarot and palm-reading may have suggested to Picasso various themes which directed La Vie.

Iconic exhibited Blue paintings are La Soupe (1902-3), The Blind Man’s Meal (1903) and La Célestine (1904). The fine self-portrait of 1901 is also in the display. It shows the artist as impoverished bohemian. Apart from a little exaggeration of the facial features to accentuate Picasso’s gauntness, that presentation as a starving artist was not far from the truth. The mystique of the bohemian poor youth of a genius is part of the reason people respond so strongly to Picasso’s early art.

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[Image: Pablo Picasso, Self-portrait (1901), Musée national Picasso – Paris. © Succession Picasso / 2018, ProLitteris, Zürich Photo © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée national Picasso-Paris) / Mathieu Rabeau]

Picasso’s Sculpture

Accounts of Picasso’s sculpture often kick into gear with Cubism, featuring his Head of Fernande (1909) and the sheet-metal Guitar (1914). This selection demonstrates that sculpture – and sculptural thinking – played a larger part in Picasso’s early art than generally noticed. Picasso’s main form of sculpture in the Blue and Rose periods is modelled clay for both stoneware ceramics and (later) bronze casts. Picasso was deeply influenced by the example of Gauguin. Picasso’s dealer Vollard had many works by Gauguin. Additionally, Picasso was friendly with Paris-based Spanish sculptor Paco Durrio (1875-1940), who assisted Gauguin in making stoneware figures of based on Gauguin’s imagery of Tahitian culture. Durrio had some original ceramic pieces by Gauguin and Picasso would have seen them. Durrio trained Picasso in making ceramics in Durrio’s workshop and assisted him technically to make some of the pieces in this exhibition.

The heads of types are striking and the most impressive is Mask of a Blind Singer (1903), a small modelled head, cast in bronze in 1960. The physiognomy is the same as the acrobat and some of the beggars who appear in paintings and the celebrated Frugal Repast (1904), which is included in the exhibition. The image of the emaciated face with hollow eye sockets and open mouth is haunting. It is a vision of an outsider which blurs the line between living action and deathly repose. So often in Symbolist paintings the poor and starving exist in a liminal space between life and death. This sculpture is little known but very effective. Picasso’s output is so vast and various that such wonderful discoveries are a common occurrence, even for seasoned followers of Picasso’s art.

The wooden carvings of 1907 show Picasso replicating the lessons he was learning from African tribal art. The combination of paint and carving shows a wish to fuse painting and carving, which is very apparent in the volumetric modelling of figures in his paintings. He did not exhibit these totemic figures and was later sensitive about discussing African art in relation to the origins of Cubism. He was reluctant to provide evidence which might be used against him. He had already suffered accusations during the Great War that his Cubism was a German plot to undermine French art. He did not want to go into details about his links with African carvings only for that to be used against him.

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[Image: Pablo Picasso, Femme à la chemise (Madeleine) (ca. 1905), Tate: Donation C. Frank Stoop 1933. © Succession Picasso / 2018, ProLitteris, Zürich © Tate, London 2017]

From Blue to Pink

From summer 1904 to spring 1905 Picasso’s mistress was Madeleine – a shadowy figure in Picasso studies, with even her full name unknown. Her thinness and delicate features appear in a number of art works at the time and her presence coincided with the transition from Blue to Rose periods. Picasso met Fernande Olivier in late 1904 and she would become his first celebrated mistress and muse. Picasso’s art is often divided into periods defined by Picasso’s mistress of the time. Madeleine is the “missing mistress”, whose influence has been overlooked due to the shortness of her relationship with Picasso and the paucity of information about her.

In early 1905 the unrelenting blues give way to touches of pink, sienna and ochre, mostly on figures. At first these co-exist with blue backgrounds but gradually greater colour variety takes over. At this time the waifs and beggars begin to be replaced by new characters: acrobats, circus performers, comedians, Harlequin and others. The melancholy is partly relieved. The art is stylistically Symbolism. The outright appeals to pity recede in the Rose period. The mood is lightened and varied now. A summer visit to Holland gave Picasso sturdy healthy farm girls to draw, taking him away from his raddled urban drifters. The new characters were still outsiders but ones who seemed more purposeful – outsiders by choice rather than victims of circumstance. One could imagine these individuals leading full lives and reaching old age, whereas the people in the Blue-period paintings seem unable to escape their fate to live tragic shortened lives.

The soulful Symbolism, picturesque content and accessibility of the Rose paintings make them perhaps Picasso’s most loved paintings. Picasso’s life was changing his art. The comfort and pleasure of a long-lasting romantic relationship with Fernande, a larger circle of French friends and the financial support of Gertrude Stein and her brothers (who became his collectors) all made Picasso feel more at home in Paris. A number of witnesses (including Fernande) noted that Picasso became in involved in occasional opium smoking at this time. Boy with a Pipe (1905) may be related to opium smoking, with the flower wreathing the boy’s head and appearing behind him perhaps representing intoxication.

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[Image: Pablo Picasso, Acrobate et jeune arlequin (1905), Private Collection. © Succession Picasso / 2018, ProLitteris, Zürich]

Many of the Rose-period paintings are gouache on cardboard, a technique that Picasso largely neglected in later periods. He paints larger canvases too, daring to be more ambitious, as in the paintings of an actor on stage, acrobats and a boy leading a horse. This last is an image which seems to have been inspired by antiquity rather than circus life. Richardson suggests that it was related to a homage to Gauguin called The Watering Place, a picture that was never painted. Classicism was seemingly on the artist’s mind at the time, particularly Ingres, David and ancient art. The modish sentimentality is replaced by something tougher.

There is one aspect that makes Picasso’s art of 1901-6 melancholy, beyond the melancholy of sentiment and the predicament of the impoverished characters. The melancholy is seeing for the last time a top-flight artist animating characters in a meaningful way, as a director directs actors. We see Picasso bring to life his figures. We get to recognise them. We see their dramas and interactions. We attempt to read their expressions and discern their personalities. At the same time, Matisse and the Fauves were taking apart the unspoken Symbolist assumptions about the value of human drama in pictorial form. They shattered forms and detached colour from observation-derived description. When Picasso took on their achievements to develop a visual language that became called Cubism, he abandoned the possibility of narrative and entered the territory of fine art as a purely visual non-narrative field, rarely to leave it again.

From Gósol to Proto-Cubism

In 1906 Picasso and Fernande visited Barcelona then travelled to spend the summer in Gósol, a remote Pyrenean village in Catalonia. The rural setting and simplicity of the people and architecture charmed the couple. Picasso’s changed from pink to ochre, reflecting the stone and soil of the region. Picasso became increasingly engaged by the primitive. He connected with the simple archaic style of the Madonna and Child in Santa Maria del Castell (the local church) and memories of the Iberian primitives that he had seen in the Palais du Trocadéro Museum, Paris. He reached back into ancient history to revivify his art and purge himself of affectation. The inexpressive carved faces led to Picasso’s use of simplified masklike faces in the coming years. (The reduction in expression directed how he finished his portrait of Gertrude Stein, which he had left incomplete before departing for Spain.)

He painted nude figures – women of the appearance of Fernande, Fondevila (an old man whom Picasso befriended), ideal youths and children in a state of nature. The scenes he chose were generic. Mood was more important than story. Figures exist is uncomplicated situations, many of them nude. As Gauguin had found sought simplicity in ancient cultures in the Pacific, so Picasso thought he had found something personal, primitive and profound in Gósol. Moreover, it was in his adopted homeland of Catalonia; he had not had to travel to the other side of the world. Picasso completed a number of canvases and small works on paper and card, as well as a number of rough wood carvings. Although Picasso was not much attached to landscape painting, he recorded views of the village. The landscapes he did there, with their facets of muted earthen colours, seem to anticipate his Cubist landscapes.

Fernande becomes increasingly present in Picasso’s art, becoming the template for multiple figures (sometimes in the same picture). Her dark hair, high cheekbones and almond eyes represented an archetype for the artist. The couple were in close proximity constantly and deprived of distractions other than the communal festivals of the village. Fernande wrote in her memoirs that the couple were never happier or closer than during their three months in Gósol.

Les Demoiselles d’Avignon

On his return to Paris, he continued to make invented figures painted in earth hues, simply modelled forms and with inexpressive faces. The women become thicker, like earth goddesses – fertile and ponderous. Picasso thought of his art as a series of grand tours de force. (La Vie and Les Saltimbanques had been conceived in such a spirit). He worked towards a new allegorical painting of a sailor and a medical student in a brothel. As he worked on the preparatory material, he cut the two men and reduced the composition to the prostitutes. This became Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907). Inspired by the energy of El Greco and the late paintings of Cézanne (which suggested to him to flatten his pictorial depth) – and wanting to make his figures as alarming as they were alluring – Picasso radically simplified the forms. He later altered the two figures on the right to make their faces resemble the African masks he saw in Paris museums and galleries.

A few of the numerous preparatory studies for the painting are here. Some of them are unfinished – or rather they were just tests that were not intended to be considered as finished paintings for display. The main area was the heads of the women. The forms not so much drawn as hewn with curving strokes, with forms built of facets. The studies are in a variety of colours but it seems that the artist was just using what was to hand, scrubbing in areas to model the figures and space. The final colour selection for the painting is limited and restrained. Picasso realised that to use strong colour would have distracted from the innovations in design, line and pictorial space that the painting developed.

The Catalogue

The exhibition contains some 70 paintings, prints and sculptures. One of the key strengths of this exhibition is the loan of works from Russian museums, which left Paris before the Russian Revolution. Obviously, with the great value and fame of the paintings, it is difficult to arrange for masterpieces dispersed around the world to come together for exhibitions. The selection cannot include all of the most famous paintings but the selection is broad and covers all relevant aspects of the period. The inclusion of minor pieces allows us to give time to art that is often not included in general studies of Picasso. In the catalogue, each exhibited art work is given a full-page illustration with full data and commentary on the facing page. Concise yet informative summaries cover the development in the art and Picasso’s life and career. There is an interview with John Richardson about Picasso’s early work. The large size (31.5 x 28 cm) allows larger reproductions, which are of good quality.

Picasso’s art at this critical period would change the direction of Western art. In addition to its role in art history, the art of the Blue and Rose periods is widely respected and loved, which is why it has been so commonly emulated. The catalogue Picasso: The Blue and Rose Periods does a good job of displaying and explaining Picasso’s art 1901-7 in an attractively produced publication. It is highly recommended for fans of Picasso and those interested in the development of Modern art.

 

Fondation Beyeler/Raphäel Bouvier (ed.), Picasso: The Blue and Rose Periods, Fondation Beyeler/Hatje Cantz, 2019, half-cloth hardback, 300pp, 171 illus., €60, ISBN 978 377 5745055 (German edition also available)

© Alexander Adams 2019

See my art and books at: www.alexanderadams.art

Berlinde de Bruyckere: It almost seemed a lily

Museum Hof van Busleyden_campagnebeeld

The current exhibition by Berlinde de Bruyckere (b. 1964) dwells upon the complicated layers of material that intermittently conceal or reveal bodily forms. Berlinde de Bruyckere: It almost seemed a lily, Museum Hof van Busleyden, Mechelen (until 12 May 2019) includes 31 works includes sculptural objects/assemblages, drawings by the artist and Enclosed Gardens (a number of religious constructions from the late Renaissance period) loaned from the permanent collection De Beata Vita Foundation. The exhibition is reviewed from the catalogue.

The exhibition consists mainly of new work by de Bruyckere, made between 2008 and 2018. The assemblages utilise materials including wallpaper, wood, fabric, wax, lead-sheathed electrical wire and epoxy resin. Wax as an ideal flesh analogue. Sometimes it is tinted, colour showing translucently through semi-opaque layers. Casting seams are apparent, with no concealment. Nails attached casts to wood are apparent. Some larger pieces made for this exhibition are partial body casts arranged into ersatz lilies. The material in this exhibition covers some familiar territory in terms of type. The artist prefers to use materials that have a pre-history and these constructions include such materials. The cloth and electrical wire in old-fashioned lead wrapping are typical, salvaged from modest sources. Decorative fabrics have been saved from destruction to play a part in de Bruyckere’s composite objects. Blank pages from old books are the artist’s preferred supports for drawing on.

De Bruyckere’s art frequently includes religious imagery. The idea of the suffering and sacrifice of Christ is compared to the mute suffering of animals – the slaughtered horse in particular. The pathos of pain is one of the cores of de Bruyckere’s art. As she writes:

I connect the petals of the lilies to images of skin, of flesh; their fragrance to lust and pleasure; their unsavoury smell while wilting to ephemerality and pain. This intense scent brought to mind the skin traders’ workshop in Anderlecht, the odour of fresh cow skins.

She also notes that her art naturally defaults to 1:1 scale, with casts and skins used at their original scale. When it came to making her own lilies she decided to use casts of herself manipulated rather than anything smaller.

Berlinde De Bruyckere (c)MirjamDevriendt_2

[Image: Berlinde De Bruyckere, ‘It almost seemed a lily IV, 2017-2018, 2018, wood, wallpaper, wax, textile, lead, epoxy, 281 x 238 x 40 cm. Photo: Mirjam Devriendt. © Berlinde De Bruyckere. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth]

De Bruyckere chose to exhibit her pieces beside the Enclosed Gardens – cabinets including pictorial scenes, originally made for a nunnery in Mechelen.

For centuries, wooden cabinets filled with a mixture of artefacts adorned the cells of Mechelen’s Augustinian Sisters. They were made in the first half of the sixteenth century, in and around the convent of the Hospital Sisters. This lay within the city walls of Mechelen, a few streets away from the palace of Margaret of Austria, Governess of the Netherlands. For the Hospital Sisters, whose main tasks were to care for the sick and elderly and to manage the hospital, the Gardens were a microcosm of the wider world.

There are seven extant oaken cabinets containing polychrome sculptures made in various materials that exist today. The retables (or shallow dioramas of composite materials to form religious scenes) depict enclosed gardens occupied by religious figures including Madonna and Child, saints, crucified Christ, unicorns and others. The dioramas are highly decorative, including intricate beadwork, embroidery, sewing and painting, including semi-precious materials. The makers’ names of the Enclosed Gardens are unknown and they are likely collaborative pieces. The inclusion of Renaissance art is not a new aspect of the way the artist has presented her work. A former exhibition in London included paintings by Luca Giordano.

The accumulation of de Bruyckere’s objects into shallow assemblages mirrors the accumulation of details and historical repairs of the ancient Enclosed Gardens. These Enclosed Gardens were prompts for meditation and sites of imaginative pilgrimage for the nuns who could not travel or leave their charges to make actual pilgrimages. There is a definite closeness between these retables and the reliquaries that were so common in Catholic countries in the period. The restoration of the Enclosed Gardens coincided with the exhibition and the catalogue illustrations of close-up photographs of the repairs of elements parallel the details of de Bruyckere’s sculpture. The delicacy of the tiny artificial flowers echoes the delicate stitching and woven patterns of de Bruyckere’s partially sewn fabrics.

Casts of skins reveal the imperfections of the uncured pelts. Bound forms under glass cloches have the air of injured deformed beings cared for despite their imperfections. They are kept decent and warm with shabby scraps of cloth sewn around them. They are half infants, half phalluses. They evoke pity and disgust as hybrids or mutants. One could also associate these beings with mummified children or baboons found in Egyptian tombs.

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[Image: Berlinde De Bruyckere, ‘Stamen, 2017-2018’, 2018, wax, textile, iron, wood, glass, epoxy, 109 x 44 x 44 cm. Photo: Mirjam Devriendt. Both: © Berlinde De Bruyckere. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth]

The embroidered lilies of the retables are related to the lily symbolically depicted as being delivered by the Angel Gabriel to the Virgin on the occasion of the Annunciation in Christian iconography. It is the symbol of divine blessing and also the sexual organ of a plant. There are drawings of genitalia by the artist. In these drawings, there is little impression of fully functional body composed of parts infused with lividity, capable of tumescence and naturally in a state of moistness. We are encountering anatomy as formerly functioning body as a pathological specimen or butchered beast. (Some pictures include lily leaves drooping beside the penises.) Just as obsolete materials sourced from old buildings have an air of tiredness and redundancy, so de Bruyckere’s drawings have similar qualities. These are anatomical fragments that have been exhausted of their natural functions and detached from their possessing entity. Drawings of genitalia makes direct the simile of the flower as genitalia as flower. Her drawings have – despite their sometimes loose and sketchy qualities – a certain static character. The labile aspect of genitalia – its changeable character – is not present in the drawings, evading something that defines that part of the anatomy.

The catalogue consists of six large-format unbound sections and an index in a folder. The sections are: I. Enclosed Garden, II. It almost seemed a lily, III. Stamen, IV. Nest, V. Petals, and VI. Santa Venera. The texts by the artist and a few experts are brief but informative. The large page size allows us to “get close” to the art, viewing details as well as whole objects. The format is attractive though the light cardboard portfolio does not seem robust.

This exhibition further deepens the artist’s complex, fruitful and ambivalent responses to the Low Countries’ tradition of religious art. De Bruyckere is the direct inheritor of the Flemish and Netherlandish religious artists without being explicitly devotional. As with Francis Bacon, de Bruyckere intelligently and sensitively reanimates the forms of sacred art whilst keeping her views on deism and theism to herself. She remains one of the most accomplished and serious artists of our age.

 

Berlinde de Bruyckere, Barbara Baert, Lieve Watteeuw, Berlinde de Bruyckere: It almost seemed a lily, Hannibal, 2018, card folder with loose sections, unpag., €59, ISBN 978 94 9267 777 8 (Dutch/English bilingual text)

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

View my art and books here: www.alexanderadams.art

Chekhov in the penal colony

“In 1889, doctor and writer Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) baffled acquaintances by announcing he was going to travel across the Russian Empire to visit a forlorn settlement on the fringes of civilisation. Chekhov was talking about Sakhalin, the largest of Russia’s islands on its north-east coast, situated between the Kamchatka Peninsula in the north and the Japanese archipelago in the south. It was a place infamous for its isolation, poverty and backwardness.

“At this time, the Russian government was shoring up its claim to Pacific territories by actively engaging in the process of colonisation. The idea was to convert exiles, prisoners and ex-prisoners into a stable Russian population, resident in a region that had formerly been inhabited only by nomadic indigenous tribes (Ainu, Orok, Gilyak and Nivkh), who had little comprehension of the distant St Petersburg monarchy. Russia would use its unwilling colonists, overseen by soldiers and administrators, to form an undeniable demographic basis to her claim over Sakhalin Island….”

 

Read the full review online on Spiked here: https://www.spiked-online.com/2019/02/07/anton-chekhov-penal-colony-sakhalin-island/

Medardo Rosso: Sculpture as Impressionism

“Medardo Rosso (1858-1928) is considered Italy’s most important modern sculptor and the most well-known Impressionist sculptor. Three new publications cover the art of Rosso: two exhibition catalogues and one monograph. All were written by Sharon Hecker, with the contributions by others in the catalogues. Of the three titles A Moment’s Monument is the most extensive discussion of Rosso’s art, with the catalogues having better illustrations and offering some different perspectives from writers other than Hecker. In A Moment’s Monument Hecker proposes Rosso as one of the originators of Modernism in sculpture (alongside Auguste Rodin) and that Rosso exemplifies the typical international artist of the following century. All of the books are attractively designed, well-produced and contain original content. Overall, the best single book if one wants to understand the art of Rosso is A Moment’s Monument. This review will cover Rosso’s art using this monograph as a source.

Medardo Rosso photograph of Ecce Puer
Medardo Rosso’s original photograph of his Ecce Puer, 1906
(photo: public domain)

“The Pulitzer Arts Foundation at St. Louis, Missouri gathered about 100 sculptures, drawings and photographs by the artist in an exhibition held between 11 November 2016 and 13 May 2017….”

Read the full review on 3rd Dimension website here: https://3rd-dimensionpmsa.org.uk/reviews/2019-02-06-medardo-rosso-sculpture-as-impressionism

Jeff Nuttall: Bomb Culture

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Writer, teacher, artist, publisher, musician and agitator for the counter culture, Jeff Nuttall (1933-2004) was a large figure in the British pop culture landscape during the 1960s and 1970s. He knew most of the leading figures in the underground scene of the era and acted as a link in the form of organiser, publisher, promoter and communicator. As someone with a high profile, Nuttall was in the ideal position to promote the counter culture – though what he put forward was his own version of the counter culture. Nuttall had his own preoccupations and blind spots and the underground culture he promulgated was very much in his own image. Bomb Culture – first published in 1968 – became the handbook for British readers in search of an explanation of the ideas driving the radical Sixties led by the post-Hiroshima generation. Widely reviewed and popular, Bomb Culture was seen at the time as representative of the zeitgeist. The new edition contains a foreword by Iain Sinclair and an introduction by Douglas Field and Jay Jeff Jones. Biographical notes allow younger readers to orientate themselves with less familiar names from 1968. There are also some added photographs.

Nuttall covers the well-established link between the origins of jazz as brothel music from New Orleans and the power of jazz music as a potent expression of political liberation and sexual defiance. Nuttall mentions the liberation movements of the period but is clearly less engaged by these movements. Sexual liberation is viewed in terms of accessibility to sexual gratification rather than to the widening of the social horizons for women. Consciousness liberation took the form of consumption of psychedelic and hallucinogenic drugs. Rock music (especially acid rock) is considered as an extension of the psychoactive effects of drugs. Nuttall is knowledgeable about pop music and writes with confidence about the counter culture credentials of rock and roll. Bomb Culture’s perspective is of particular interest because it was written from 1967 to 1968 and was published in 1968, placing its creation right at the centre of activity it describes.

While Nuttall’s perspective was British – laced with references to the Second World War and post-war austerity – his view of the scene was refracted through the lens of American culture – jazz, film, poetry, and underground activist journalism. Nuttall sees the cultural upheaval in Britain as a response to the failure of the CND and Aldermaston Marches of the late 1950s and early 1960s. He condemns much British Socialist writing as a compromise, seeking to ingratiate writers with the existing structure of the Labour Party as the main leftist opposition to the establishment. His claims are scattershot and his pragmatic counter-position is not forthcoming. For Nuttall the more underground, the freer from compromise production becomes. The International Times and his own fanzine (or “little magazine”, according to your definition) My Own Mag are freer. The manifest failure of the mass youth-led protests against the Cold War bomb culture led to the wider, more pervasive social movement of the counter culture. While British protesters took their lead from anti-Vietnam War protests and American pop culture, Nuttall sees a direct line from the anti-Cold War culture of the 1950s and early 1960s.

Nuttall took a more militant – even violent – position than the hippy outlook headed by Allen Ginsberg and the San Francisco scene. He is decidedly opposed to the pacifism of the hippies. He sees the violence of protestors in London’s Grosvenor Square against the American Embassy at the height of the Vietnam War as an enervating corrective to the violence being perpetrated against the Vietnamese. Likewise, there is adulation for student bomb makers and narcotic manufacturers. Yet how much of this is not simply the petulant anger of malcontents directed against the status quo? Is not the violent response the extension of violence the responders seeks to curtail? For Nuttall, bomb culture has a double meaning – the hegemony of the military-industrial complex that the nuclear bomb created and the bomb culture of youthful resistance to that system. Nuttall sees violence as an explicable and inevitable response to potential violence of a military system. He discusses the aimless violence of the teenage thrill kill and the gang fights of the Mods and Rockers. (The Teddy boys appropriated the upper-class fashion revival by the Edwardian age that Savile Row tailors, who had planned to market it to the middle class. Instead of the style becoming a profitable product for tailors to reach the middle classes, the working class adopted it as a badge of decadent defiance.)

Another line is the pseudo-Nietzschean amoralism of the Moors murderers as an example of libertinism. The defiance of sexual and social mores logically leads to the defiance of the ethical principles of the sanctity of life. In one startling observation, Nuttall talked of the crowd at the trial witnessing the process less in indignation than in envy.

Nuttall puts forward the psychoanalytic theory of the day, cribbed from popular publications.

Schizophrenia was ill-defined. At best it meant, means, someone who was isolated and therefore not adjusted to the patterns of society.

This conformed to the social-repressive view of R.D. Laing and others, who saw schizophrenia and serious conditions not as a problem of an individual being unable to map reality on to the mental landscape of the subject but of society stigmatising the non-conformist individual. In this view society and family (and the medical profession which sought to apply the principles of those institutions) were systems of repression. Any system that restrains (no matter how it also nurtures, supports and protects) is an artificial development which seeks to divert the potentially disruptive force of individualism. The psychoanalytic profession – rather than seeking to actualise the potential of people – was attempting to neuter people in the service of the pharmaceutical industry, educational system and social structures that were themselves beholden to insane priorities and values. In short, the insane were responding to the insanity of their alienated social reality rather than to any internal deficiency. In this respect Nuttall puts the counterculture case in its clearest form, associating Laing’s ideas with Ginsberg’s Howl – a poem noting the madness of great minds faced by the painful reality of society.

Nuttall diverts into Surrealism and Dadaism as attempts at liberation of art. His art history is unconventional – more Norman Mailer than Ernst Gombrich. Yet, even when he is elaborating ideas that would not find a place in any conventional study, he remains thought provoking.

The destination, as far as art is concerned, is the journey itself. Art keeps the thing moving. The only true disaster is the end of the journey, the end of man and his development.

Nuttall knew many of the Beat Generation, particularly William Burroughs. They lived in London at the same time and Nuttall published Burroughs’s writings. The British Beats are described in a series of amusing anecdotes.

Nuttall does not weave his observations into an integrated thesis. His observations form a torrent of history, pop culture criticism, fashion and music. (Television and radio hardly comes up and American movies are referenced in passing and in terms of iconic actors rather than any discussion of particular films.) Political theory, philosophy and revolutionary activism concepts are almost entirely omitted. The book includes many lengthy quotes – poems, newspaper extracts and popular science papers. Nuttall has limitations as a creative writer and a populariser of other people’s ideas. He was a reckless writer: casual with facts, lazy in style and clumsy with logic. Yet he was by no means a cynical blagger. He had an original and wayward mind; his Bomb Culture remains not only a personal view of a tumultuous period but also an enjoyable record of the era seen from the inside.

Jeff Nuttall, Bomb Culture, Strange Attractor Press (MIT distr.), 2019, paperback, 306pp., £14.99, ISBN 978 190 7222702

 

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

View my books and art here: www.alexanderadams.art