Exhibition review: Vanessa Bell

a-conversationI first encountered Vanessa Bell’s work when I was a student at the Courtauld, where I saw A Conversation and Arum Lilies, and fell in love with them. In fact, I haven’t seen that much more of her work since, so went to Dulwich Picture Gallery‘s new exhibition of Bell’s work as soon as I could. Bell is primarily known today as part of the Bloomsbury group – sister to the more famous Virginia (Woolf), muse and lover to several men including Duncan Grant – and only incidentally a painter in her own right. Critics speculate that in fact history might have treated her more favourably had she not been associated with such a notorious group.

This exhibition contains only works by Bell, and the explicit aim is to refocus on her as an artist – and one who is deeply engaged with Continental art, who is ‘one of the leading artists of her day’, according to the exhibition notes, who has an irresistible ‘energy and forthrightness’ in her work as well as her life. The first room, ‘Among Friends’, does slightly undermine this concept, though, since the portraits are familiar Bloomsbury faces, including herself and Woolf, Lytton Strachey, Duncan Grant and others. However, I particularly appreciated The Red Dress, a Madonna-esque portrait of her mother based on a photograph by Julia Margaret Cameron and worked up in oils by Bell after her mother’s death. Lady Strachey is also appealing: a slightly grand but rather practical-looking woman, passionately feminist, unconventional and given to reciting poetry aloud. Bell’s portraits move sharply away from the conventions of Victorian portraiture, capturing their subjects in a way which does not rely on a realist depiction but rather uses unexpected colours and brushstrokes to draw out some deeper energy which she saw in them. In the portrait of Lytton Strachey we can see his spontenaity as well as hers; in the portrait of Woolf in an armchair we are conscious both of her inscrutability and also of the portrait as a depiction of the writer’s complex inner life.

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The designs for the Omega Workshop which appear in the exhibition are full of life and colour, the clashing bold designs both of their time and timeless, which is also true of her still lifes; while Bell clearly knows and subtly references earlier still lifes with their flowers and fruit, hers are quite her own, though Iceland Poppies demonstrates what she learned from Sargent, but paintings such as Arum Lilies, with its slightly awkward angle and apparently haphazard positioning is appealing in a unique way because of its original approach to form and colour. I’ve always wondered how the vase remains upright.

While she noted that ‘one isn’t meant to paint what one thinks beautiful’, happily she was able to ignore such rigorous tastes, painting things that clearly are beautiful but in a way which creates her own view of such beauty. The Other Room, a painting intended as an overmantel, in Studland Beach. Verso: Group of Male Nudes by Duncan Grant circa 1912 by Vanessa Bell 1879-1961which we see out of a window across a room; the effect would have been cleverly to suggest that one was looking in a mirror, transforming the room in which the painting was hung, but also implying that there are hidden, other places we can glimpse through paintings, round corners, out of windows. Paintings such as this remind me that Bell’s art is all about art – about colour and form and design, about living it, about painting other artists. Everything she paints says something about her artistic theories and integrity – a conclusion I probably couldn’t have reached without this exhibition.

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Other paintings indicate her awareness of Impressionism and other movements, from the Cubist portrait of Molly McCarthy to landscape paintings which reference Cezanne and Monet. I never really thought of Bell as a landscape painter, but the exhibition has corrected me in this, and points out that she loved to paint as she explored the countryside around her home. There are also many Continental landscapes, full of light and colour, capturing the spirit of place wonderfully and evocatively.

Her portraits of women, with which the exhibition closes, are amazing: the opening panel points out that her ‘portraits of women offer us bracing encounters with female subjects given startling new agency and force’. After all, this is a time when women were beginning to gain some power – the vote, for instance, and to have more possibilities for establishing themselves as artists, writers and intellectuals independently of the men in their lives. This is apparent in her portraits, yet she does not shy away from depicting alienated women in Studland Beach, and in her self-portrait she shows herself as a painter, yet with her face blurred, absenting herself from her own work. There is much to reflect on here, and though the arrangement of the works by theme rather than period can be obscuring of her development as an artist, it also offers an insight into the ideas that preoccupied her across her life, as well as indicating the breadth of styles and approaches, as well as subjects, she explored. I must add that the exhibition labels were extremely good – detailed and informative, which is all too rare these days, and the catalogue is a delight!

Exhibition review: Paul Nash

angel-and-devilI was very pleased to be able to catch the Paul Nash exhibition at Tate Britain last week (it closes March 5th), and I took 11 pages of notes, so this post will be an attempt to condense my ideas into some form of review! Nash (1889-1946) is not, I think, as appreciated as he should be (in my circles, anyway!) but his deep and sustained involvement in a movements, events and exhibitions throughout the early twentieth century, particularly in his surrealist later work, is demonstrated beautifully in this large exhibition.

The opening room is entitled ‘Dreaming Trees’, and indeed trees feature throughout much of his early and mid-career work, in different forms. I hadn’t been aware of the strong influence of the Pre-Raphaelites and Blake on Nash’s work, but some early examples of his illustrations clearly three-treesindicate this, such as ‘The Combat’ and ‘Our Lady of Inspiration’. Nash also on occasion wrote his own poetry to accompany his work. His engagement with landscape, and trees in particular, is accompanied by his unusual approach; he ‘tried to paint trees as though they were human beings’, looking for the character and individuality of plant forms, as a part of his attempts to explore the locus genii which preoccupies his work throughout his life. Moving beyond conventional landscapes, he wrote that

my love of the monstrous and the magical led me beyond the confines of natural appearances into surreal worlds…

I particularly liked the almost-human trees in ‘The Three Trees’, which appear in many of his paintings and were inspired by the trees near his family house. Their personality appears, and in the range of paintings of trees including these it is possible to see how he became more drawn to the drama and mysticism of the natural world: the exhibition label says that he

lived the drama of the nocturnal skies – falling stars, moonrise, storms and summer lightning.

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The works on display indicate the extent to which Nash links the natural world with creativity, but other worlds intrude; after his war experiences, his paintings often still include trees, but they are different, an attempt to drag order from chaos, forms from formlessness. His movement towards surrealism is marked, at the start, by a formal, structured beauty which tries to make sense of a changing world, but at the edges there is an untamed wildness, and an acknowledgement that the relationship between humanity and nature is an unequal one, where the balance varies. The section ‘We Are Making a New World’, named after one of his most famous war paintings, exemplifies this: he described himself as ‘no longer an artist’ but ‘a messenger’, using simplified forms, such as stunted trees and devastated landscapes, to demonstrate the destructiveness of war (here, again, the trees seem to stand in for people). Yet in several of the paintings, such as ‘Spring in the Trenches’, nature reassert itself after the damage that war has inflicted: nature is always stronger, in the end, though the soldiers in the trenches are blind to its beauty.

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The landscapes become more and more angular and geometric; they indicate a world which continues to change, where humanity seems increasingly reckless in its treatment of the environment. In a series of paintings with red clouds it is difficult to tell if nature is in sympathy, or angry with a world bent on destruction. In ‘The Menin Road’ the landscape has become entirely subject to form, with even the sky appearing unnatural, and the vicious vertical lines of the blasted trees standing in for the ruined lives of soldiers.

Later sections demonstrate Nash’s attachment to place, as well as his interest in ancient monolithshistorical sites such as Whiteleaf Cross. This might be read as an escape from the troubling present, but it is human interventions in and reshaping of landscape that seems to draw him here. Increasingly his paintings veer towards abstraction, with forms placed in the landscape – which he continued to do for the rest of his life – and with works such as ‘Winter Sea’ constructing a geometric abstraction from nature. His paintings which seem to show nature framed, shaped and controlled by humanity, such as ‘Month of March’, often show a branch out of place, or some small sign that nature is still in charge.

In the 1930s his work undergoes further shifts, especially in his interest in still lifes and indoor paintings which demonstrate his increasing use of form and shape to structure his works. These invite questions; ‘St Pancras’, for example, with its slightly disorientating perspective, pits verticals against horizontals, curves against straight lines, so that the viewer’s eye is confused once it moves beyond the vase in the foreground, and we watch as if looking through the window ourselves. His exploration of shape in the world is extrapolated further in ‘Dead Spring’ and ‘Lares’, in which the latter abstracts the shapes of the former. Other still-life/abstract works draw in found objects, such as glove stretchers repurposed as sculptural trees; there are several tree-related works which both echo his earlier paintings and indicate how far his work has moved on, particularly under the influence of surrealism.

Nash writes of landscapes:

They are unseen merely because they are not perceived.

Exploring his own vision of landscape allows him to see differently, and even manmade objects seem to form landscapes in his works. ‘Equivalents for the Megaliths’ is one of his most famous paintings, and indicates his ability to combine landscape and form in unexpected juxtapositions; the stylised landscape of the background is populated by forms which stand in for the megaliths so that what is man made becomes a very different part of the view. There are also photographs; ‘Monster Field’ is an image of elms struck by lightning which take in both the appearance and the personality of monsters.

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With the advent of WWII, Nash painted crashed German bombers, and in a number of paintings indicates the threat which comes from the sky during war, sometimes with the red clouds which appeared in his previous war paintings. Towards the end of his life, his work is lighter in colour, exploring cycles of change, life and death, which is apparent both in his works with sunflowers, and also in his essay ‘Aerial Flowers’. Again he turns to the natural world to understand the incomprehensible, exploring varied landscapes to create his unique vision. There is an appealing circularity in this return to the land.

New Art Gallery Walsall

The New Art gallery WalsallIt’s sad when one only really hears about somewhere when it might be lost; I’ve never read so much in the press about the New Art Gallery Walsall since it was threatened with closure. Given the money and enthusiasm behind it, not to mention its significant collection, the Garman Ryan bequest from the widow of the sculptor Jacob Epstein. Embarrassingly, I’d never been there, but the articles I read indicated I ought to (while I can), so I made a trip to see it. I wasn’t impressed that it’s not even signposted from the station, but was pointed in the right direction, and while the building itself doesn’t do much for me, the collections appealed.

Tpicassohe gallery clearly engages thoroughly with the community, including family events, children’s holiday activities, an art library and a range of exhibitions. I spent most of the time there looking at the permanent collection, which is arranged thematically, including ‘Trees’, ‘Landscape and Townscape’, ‘Animals and Birds’ and ‘Models and Muses’. Given the diversity of the collection – though most of it falls within a relatively narrow timeframe, from around the turn of the century to the present – this is a clear and appealing approach which creates some inspired juxtapositions. The range of artists is impressive; I was struck by several Pissarros, and particularly taken with a Picasso drawing which, oddly, reminded me of Elizabeth Siddall’s work (left – excuse the crooked photo!)

Other highlights included, well, most of the trees (see slideshow), which were a feature of the Epsteins’ collection and display; there were some especially appealing pencil drawings here.

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Obviously I was delighted to see one of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s drawings of Elizabeth Siddal; this is one of my favourite images of her, in fact, day-dreaming as she looks up from her book.20161129_132001

The range here is excellent and I’m not able to do justice to it, but there is a great mix of contemporary artists and older works, from Impressionists to Modernists, sculpture, paintings and drawings. You can find Sickert, Augustus John, Corot, Braque, Samuel Palmer, even a Constable. Paul Nash appears, with one of my favourites from the collection, A Suffolk Landscape:

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The thematic approach to the collection is intriguing and although at first I thought it might seem to simplistic, in fact it highlights some interesting concepts about shifting continental approaches to nature, or landscapes, or portraiture, which is illuminating and appealing as well (I imagine) as proving useful for talks and events.

Do try to visit the gallery, to see its collection, to support it, and you can also vote in the ‘People’s Choice’ ahead of an exhibition of the most popular paintings in 2017.

 

Book review: Weatherland

9780500292655I like English weather, on the whole. I’m not one for too much sun, and providing it isn’t catastrophic (and I don’t have to drive in it), I enjoy the drama of mist, heavy rain, snow, and the occasional sunny day. I like seeing the effects the changeable weather has on the garden and on my moods. But for me as for most people, the weather is a backdrop to our daily lives, and one which, travelling by car, living in centrally-heated homes and working in air-conditioned, often windowless offices, we can increasingly ignore. This, as Alexandra Harris’s book suggests, is a shame.
Weather is important. The landscape is shaped by it, and many writers and artists believe that national character and temperament are shaped by the climate. Harris’s book, subtitled ‘Writers and Artists under English Skies’, explores how the English weather has been depicted from Beowulf onwards. Along the way, she considers how the weather affects people, and how and crucially why it is included in literature and art. Is it just a backdrop, or used for pathetic fallacy? It’s often much more significant than we think, it seems: human insistence on relating the weather to ourselves (writers who write better in Spring weather, for example), or anthropomorphising it, trying to make sense, find patterns, using faith, science, myth or art to explain it: we can’t ignore the weather. This determination to make something which is impervious to us make sense on our terms is fascinating, because it tells us more about the human condition than it does about the weather, even if it is simply in the recording of daily weather.
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‘The Rain it Raineth Every Day’, Norman Garstin (1889, Penlee House)

Harris explores an enormous and impressive range of works, drawing on social thought, history, science and the arts to explore how our relationship with the weather has changed over the centuries. Swift’s hatred of hot weather, Shelley’s desire to be a cloud, Ruskin’s concern that the skies were being spoiled for us by science: these are things I’d not really considered before. Harris’s gift is for writing in a manner both erudite and entertaining, which I thoroughly enjoyed in her last book, Romantic Moderns, and this is no less fascinating, making obvious things which are all too easily overlooked.

Harris’s deepest interest seems to be in Virginia Woolf, whose work is constantly preoccupied with weather conditions, and the book returns frequently to Orlando, in which the action takes place over four centuries, and the weather is observed (satirically): the Victorians are dark and damp, for example, while the twentieth century is bright and dry. Apparently Wyndham Lewis disliked English weather, suggesting in his Vorticist manifesto that it should be ‘Blasted’, because it was inappropriately dull and changeable for a modern machine age.
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Reading Weatherland has made me want to return to books I know well, including several of Woolf’s, both to consider the ways in which the weather is important in them, and because ‘the weather in which we read affects our understanding of a book’ (p.349). The recent spell of hot weather prompted me to think that the English do become a little mad in our brief spells of sunshine, and this is borne out by Harris’s reading of The Go-Between, for example, but, of course, ‘significant weather is suspect when it gets into fiction’, as she notes when discussing Julian Barnes’s work: weather in books can be made to produce certain effects, to resonate with the characters’ feelings, to cause certain events to happen, and though these things might happen in real life, they seem improbable in fiction. But weather does do surprising things in real life, of course, because our lives are still, in so many ways, bound up in the climate, as the powerful and disturbing conclusion of Weatherland emphasises.

Ravilious, Dulwich Picture GalleryFOR REVIEW USE ONLY

‘Wet Afternoon’ by Eric Ravilious (1928)

As our changing planet forces us to consider a future of increasingly extreme weather conditions, in an anthropocene age where humankind has, finally and disastrously, affected the weather, this is a book which explores the literary and artistic memorialising of the weather of the past, and invites us to consider our own experiences of weather. As Richard Mabey says, we all experience weather differently, and it affects us in diverse ways, which is, of course, the essence of why it has proved such a significant aspect of literary and artistic inspiration, but after finishing this book, I feel that our experience of the weather is part of being human, of living on this planet. It is a cliche to say that the cycle of the seasons reflects the cycle of our lives – one more way in which we try to tame nature, perhaps – but the elemental experience of Lear’s battle with the storm on the heath, for example, reduces humankind to its most vulnerable, and asks us to consider life in a very different way:
Lear.  Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!         runciman_lear_heath_ngs
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Strike flat the thick rotundity o’ the world!
Crack nature’s moulds, all germens spill at once
That make ingrateful man!
[…]
Rumble thy bellyful! Spit, fire! spout, rain!
Nor rain, wind, thunder, fire, are my daughters:
I tax not you, you elements, with unkindness;
I never gave you kingdom, call’d you children,
You owe me no subscription: then, let fall
Your horrible pleasure; here I stand, your slave,
A poor, infirm, weak, and despis’d old man.
But yet I call you servile ministers,
That have with two pernicious daughters join’d
Your high-engender’d battles ’gainst a head
So old and white as this. O! O! ’tis foul.

 

There’s a great review here by A S Byatt (someone whose work I admire and whose judgement I trust!)

Book Review: The Arts Dividend

imagesI think a lot about the value of the arts. I’m interested in most art forms, from literature (well, obviously; I’m a lecturer in Eng Lit) to ballet, music to theatre. I’m aware, then, of the benefits of cultural life: of the pleasure it gives me to go to an exhibition, say, or to learn to play a piece of music – and not just a transitory pleasure, but – because it makes me think – one which stays with me for a long time. I try to find ways to get more people interested in the arts for this reason – it will make them happy – and, especially for children, because early exposure to culture encourages creativity and helps learning, among other things. I am, therefore, not really the target audience for this book, because it confirms what I already know, but the anecdotes and examples made it worthwhile for me. Darren Henley is Chief Executive of Arts Council England, and as such is well-placed to write about both how the arts are funded, and why they are important, and he does this efficiently.

Henley is clear from the start that the arts are not ‘subsidised’, they are ‘invested in’, because money used (appropriately) to support culture is repaid many times over in the multitude of benefits the arts provide. The book (rather like the Arts Council website) is something of a manifesto, with the aim of convincing people that culture deserves investment; it’s very clearly laid out – actually too clearly for me, with the seven bmag‘dividends’ each given a chapter, each chapter beginning with a summary, and with large orange quotations appearing throughout. This is – as no doubt it’s meant to be – a gift for journalists looking for a good quote (or those who want to talk like they’ve read it without actually having done so) but it’s quite annoying if you’re reading the whole book when you read a passage and then read the same thing in orange. Still, that aside, it’s structured in a way that Henley’s argument is unmistakable, and effective. The ‘arts dividends’ covered are ‘creativity’, ‘learning’ ‘feel-good’, ‘innovation’, ‘place-shaping’, ‘enterprise’ and ‘reputation’, and each of these in discussed in some detail, with examples of best practice given. Henley has clearly travelled a great deal across England and cites theatres, libraries, concert halls and more from Penzance to York,  and the mini case studies he provides are worth reading both because of the inspiring nature of the diverse, community-focused art projects going on, and – more prosaically – because if you are someone who has to write funding bids, or works in the arts and culture sector in any way, this book provides some invaluable models of projects.

The chapters provide evidence (everything is well-referenced to research and reports) that instrumentsthe arts inspire creativity, promote diversity, help children learn and develop, make us happy and keep us healthy, encourage innovation and entrepreneurship, regenerating places whether urban or rural and fostering a sense of community, and even make money. Graduates from arts degrees might not be making as much money as those with dentistry skills, but they are able to set the world on fire. (A recent league table indicated that dentistry graduates earned the highest salary, while creative writing earned the least. However, the writer has a better chance of being remembered in a hundred years time, in my view). Culture isn’t, and shouldn’t be, the preserve of an elite, the wealthy or highly educated, or those with arts degrees or interests. Poetry, painting, music, theatre: they all can be enjoyed by and a benefit to everyone. Henley describes a ‘cultural education’, and this isn’t just applicable to school children; there are

four elements of cultural education. The first is knowledge-based, and teaches children about the best of what has been created (for example, great literature, art, architecture, film, music and drama). … The second part of cultural education centres on the development of critical and analytical skills, which can also be applied across other subjects. The third element is skills-based, and enables children to participate in and create new culture for themselves … And the fourth centres on the development of an individual’s personal creativity…

If you haven’t thought about why your children should learn a musical instrument, or whether government funding ought to go to galleries, or whether you should bother going to the theatre, read this. Equally, if you know all that and are putting together funding bids, it’s useful for you, too. Also, it’s timely and encouraging. In a period of austerity, the arts often thrive despite a lack of funding, and it’s at these times that we need them most. Recently I heard Julian Lloyd-Webber give a lecture in which he voiced his concerns over the future of music education (I immediately booked tickets for a children’s concert!), and lots of people (including me) are distressed about the end of Art History A-level. Education plays a huge part in cultural participation and enjoyment, and it is important that investment in the arts continues on a large scale in order to prevent cultural pursuits becoming the preserve of the wealthy alone.

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Heavenly Lights: A life in stained glass

20161008_115303At Shrewsbury Museum at the moment (until January 2017) there is an exhibition of the stained glass of Margaret Rope. Rope, known as ‘Marga’ (1882-1953) is frequently overlooked (I expect most people reading this won’t have heard of her) but she produced a large and wonderful body of work across her long and interesting life. Her biography, on the Museum’s website, tells me that

‘Marga’, as she was called, was an instinctive rebel – known for smoking cheroot cigars, riding a motorbike and wearing her hair short – in an era when women were largely suppressed. Without backing from a patron, rich family or husband, she made her own way in her career, one of a new generation of artists as much at home in a workshop as in a drawing-studio.

However, she went on to become a Catholic nun, in an enclosed order, though continuing to design stained glass in a studio in the convent. She was educated at the Birmingham School of Art, where she imbibed the Arts and Crafts principles which are also apparent in the work of other stained glass makers such as Florence Camm. (In fact some of the images used in the exhibition come from the Birmingham City University Art & Design archive, which I have recently been exploring).

The exhibition contains a wonderful range of her works, both in design and in glass: seeing the two side-by-side is an illuminating experience, emphasising the vision needed to design a window on paper and be able to imagine its effects in coloured glass with light shining through – and the effects are stunning. The images below are of her 1923 work ‘Lumen Christi’ (The Light of Christ’) and depict members of her family in a religious procession.

The draughtsmanship of her work is remarkable, the colours in the designs pale and fragile next to the illuminated jewel colours of the stained glass, but the designs have a delicate beauty of their own (though I heard several people there say that the works on paper leave them cold). Stained glass is so often celestial, though, its beautiful colours uplifting the spirit, and these are wonderful examples.

I was very taken with her window ‘The Goblin Market’, based on Christina Rossetti’s poem. This was a student work, c.1908, and demonstrates a strong Pre-Raphaelite influence on her work. The animal-like goblins appear very much as Rossetti described them, their faces leering at the viewer disturbingly while the girl (presumably Laura, the one who took the fruit) seems calm, dressed in a period style. The patches of green are beautiful, where leaves and trees appear in the background, but this is not a conventional representation, and differs in style and content from other illustrations of the poem.

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Most of her works have religious subjects, however, from Judith and Holofernes to the Catholic Martyrs. Her close engagement with her faith, as well as her artistic work inspired by the Arts and Crafts movement, gives life to her designs. There are several Rope works to be seen in situ in Shrewsbury – in Shrewsbury Cathedral, there are seven windows, and in St Mary’s there are painted carvings. These, along with the exhibition, are well worth a visit, for they give a great sense of the breadth and style of her work.