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.

monster-field

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.

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.

 

The Reading Art virtual exhibition

The culmination of the Reading Art project I worked on earlier this year is a virtual exhibition, which you can look at here. The project explored how Pre-Raphaelite art interacted with literature, particularly poetry, and the exhibition focuses on a number of particular works from the Birmingham collection, with a discussion of its literary origins. The project remit stated that:

The works in the Birmingham collection indicate this breadth of literary engagement, from Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Beata Beatrix(1877), inspired by Dante’s Vita Nuova, to Edward Hughes’ Night with her Train of Stars (1912), based on W.E. Henley’s ‘Margaritae Night (BMAG).jpgSorori’. These literary paintings take poetry as their inspiration, depicting a figure from the text, and a particular moment in the poem. We see an idiosyncratic, personal image of what the painter saw as he read. Such literary depictions are common in Pre-Raphaelite works, and indicate the depth of artistic engagement with literature that the Brotherhood and their followers maintained.

This project aims for an enhanced understanding of the process and motivations of the artists who painted literary subjects, and will also explore ekphrastic writing, considering how poetry responds to art.

The virtual exhibition is categorised so that viewers can select a topic (The Bible, Dante, Myths, Shakespeare, Tennyson, Victorian Poetry, Romantic Poets) and click on that topic to see a selection of images with detailed discussion about them. Please feel free to let me know your comments!

King Arthur and Tintagel

One of my abiding interests from childhood is the myths of King Arthur. I dragged my parents round places such as Glastonbury Abbey (the alleged burial site of Arthur – one of several) and Tintagel  Castle (revenge, perhaps, for all the churches and stately homes!) I read and reread the myths, from children’s retellings to Chretien de Troyes, Malory, Spenser, Geoffrey of Monmouth (I was once asked to leave a history class at school for reading this under the desk, ironically) and, latterly, Tennyson. The Pre-Raphaelites, with their love of medievalism (shared by the Victorians more widely), also painted some Arthurian myths, and I’m interested in those, too. I’m less concerned about the ‘real’ King Arthur, if there was such a person (and if there was, he certainly couldn’t have been the medieval king he is depicted as) and more interested in what the myths mean to us, and what we do with them. It seems fair to say that the myths of Arthur and his Round Table have been associated with either those interested in mysticism, or those with an overabundance of misguided patriotism, but there are plenty of serious scholars, too. The constant reinterpretation of the myths, in poetry, fiction, art, films and more, is an indication of the enduring nature of the legends, but the ways in which these stories are used tells us more about the society in which these interpretations were created than it does about Arthur himself.

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The stories are age-old, including chivalry, fighting, power, magic, love, adultery, faith, death and human fallibility. They come from all over the place – the stories we are now familiar with have been pieced together largely from Welsh, Cornish and French tales, and there is no ‘pure’ or ‘true’ version. But the stories of Arthur and his knights, their adventures, their search for the Holy Grail, the doomed love-triangle of Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot which brings down a kingdom, have resonances throughout history. Arthur, after his mortal wound, is taken to the mysterious Vale of Avalon; he was said to be ready to return when Britain needed him (and, interestingly, during WW1 some people apparently believed he would return). There are echoes of Christianity in this: as a good, pure man and leader, Arthur is figured in the myths as Christ’s representative on earth, whom death cannot kill and will one day return to save those in need. The chivalric code of Arthur’s court is set up as an idealised society in which all are welcome, all are brave, good, mutually supportive, and so on. (Actually the details of the stories indicate something more nuanced than this, though).

Places which are associated with Arthur are extremely popular. We visited Tintagel recently, which is known as the legendary place of Arthur’s birth to Ygraine and Uther; Merlin is said to have smuggled him away to live with another family (Sir Bors, I think). Tintagel Castle and village make much of this connection, and as we climbed up to the castle I told my small son some of the stories of Arthur (bowdlerised for children!) Surrounded by sea, high up on the cliffs, it’s an evocative place, despite the extremely tenuous Arthurian connections. I notice that another castle is being excavated near Tintagel, which is expected to arouse the interest of Arthurians (see here).

I was also curious to visit King Arthur’s Great Halls. In the 1930s, Frederick Thomas Glasscock acquired a Victorian house on the main street in Tintagel, and set about turning into how20160716_153528 he saw King Arthur’s court. This slightly barking idea has led to a fascinating place: the first room contains thrones on which one can sit and listen to a recording of Robert Powell reading the story of King Arthur, which is illustrated by some striking paintings by William Hatherall, which are very much period pieces. Each painting is lit up at the relevant moment in the story – my son loved it. Then one moves down a corridor which contains beautiful stained glass by Veronica Whall, loosely Pre-Raphaelite in style, featuring the coats of arms of the knights of the round table. The real destination, though, is the Great Hall itself: with 52 types of Cornish granite. There is a Round Table, along with thrones and suits of armour. It’s fascinating in a rather surreal way: remarkably kitsch, and indicative of the passion some people have for Arthur himself. You can find out more about the Halls here. There are various other places in the area, all which take equally seriously their position so close to the birthplace of King Arthur; perhaps we will visit those another time. Tintagel was fascinating, but I was happy to return home and read Tennyson’s Idylls of the King.