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.

 

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Diagnosing Sydney Carton

I am teaching a third-year module on Victorian literature and psychology this year, and while I am preparing lectures and reflecting on the course material, I am reflecting on some issues which relate to how we can ‘diagnose’ historical figures and literary characters. Edgar Allan Poe has been retrospectively ‘diagnosed’ as a manic-depressive dipsomaniac; Elizabeth Siddal is assumed to have been suffering from anorexia, and Milton’s blindness, scholars now suggest, was due to glaucoma. Very likely, though how much this adds to our understanding of these figures is debatable. However, in examining literature and psychology, much of the material examines the authors’ interests in the new science of psychology (as well as pseudo-sciences such as phrenology and mesmerism). These interests are carried over into their literary works, and it’s surprising how different the texts seem when one reads them with an eye to psychological narratives.

This leads me to A Tale of Two Cities, and the ‘problem’ of Sydney Carton. Carton’s redemption of himself, and saving of Charles Darnay, has led critics to suggest that this is Dickens’s most spiritual novel, and the theme of resurrection is prominent. This implies, though, that Carton is a cardboard figure whose purpose is the reunion of the Darnay-Manette family, whereas I read Carton as a much more complex character (and Darnay as Forster’s ‘flat’ figure). He seems to diagnose himself: he admits to being a wastrel, who fritters away time and money, takes his own life as of no account, and has no hope for his future. While he might have succeeded in his profession, a lack of confidence and interest in it has caused him to become no more than another man’s drudge. His is a genuinely pitiful tale, and one for which we see no cause, until near the end of the novel where he recalls the early death of his parents, and for a moment we glimpse a sad and abandoned little boy.

We see Carton’s heart when he opens up to Lucie, admitting his hopeless love for her (which you can see in a hammy film version here); this episode and his kindness towards the poor seamstress in the tumbril seem to indicate a ‘good’ side to the ‘bad’ man. While he may be Darnay’s near-double, the situation is more complex than that he and Darnay represent the good and bad sides of a man (unlike, for example, in Poe’s ‘William Wilson’). Carton is a man who cannot save himself, and so, instead, saves another, thus ironically proving that in fact he was a man worth saving himself.

I am writing a kind of ‘case notes’ of Sydney Carton, looking at the work of contemporary writers on psychology such as Henry Maudsley, whose words ‘The sorrow which has no vent in tears may make other organs weep’ seem to have some relevance in the case of Carton, and G.H. Lewes. My questions, though, are these: can we ‘diagnose’ a literary figure as if s/he were a real person? How do we also take account of plot, of author, of literary conventions? I am hoping to answer these questions in a conference paper for the History and Philosophy of Psychology conference in 2013.

NB If you are interested in madness and literature, the Madness and Literature Network website is invaluable.

Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde

The long-awaited Pre-Raphaelite exhibition at Tate Britain has been open nearly a week, and it’s very busy. People are clearly flocking to see it, and the newspapers and the internet are buzzing with views, reviews and comments. Turns out quite a lot of people don’t much like the Pre-Raphaelites, but I don’t suppose that will affect the numbers of visitors to this blockbuster show. And some of the negative reviews have been a delight: Waldemar Januszczak in the Sunday Times calls the PRB ‘demented wife-swappers’ (ok, fair enough) who are ‘bonkers’ (yes, at least some of them) whose paintings centre on ‘ridiculous plot lines’ (true, but then that’s mostly to do with their literary roots, and applies to most Victorians anyway). Obviously, I am interested in/really like the Pre-Raphaelites, so I don’t need convincing of their artistic merit. From that point of view, this exhibition can’t fail, for me and so many of my friends and colleagues, because it is simply the biggest Pre-Raphaelite exhibition we’ve ever been to (I think I did go to the 1984 one, but was too young to remember it). For anyone with an interest in Pre-Raphaelitism, this exhibition is as unmissable as you would expect it to be – it contains many (although not all) of the major works of Pre-Raphaelite art; and a huge range of paintings and drawings are included, alongside sculpture, photography and furniture. This exhibition specifically set out to be inclusive in the way that earlier exhibitions were not, covering a range of media as well as drawing on more women artists, for example, and overall in this it is fairly successful.

Like some other reviewers, I do have a few issues with the arrangement of the exhibition. Little is made of the ‘avant-garde’ label: although the introductory blurb says that the PRB were ‘both historical and contemporary in their approach’, it fails to elaborate on how their work was ‘essentially modern’, and I remain unconvinced (although it looks like the catalogue provides more detail). There is very little background on the Brotherhood, although there are some portraits in the first room, and little on how they came together or what they believed. The biggest issue for me, though, is the thematic arrangement of the works: the themes (Origins, History, Nature, Salvation, Beauty, Paradise and Mythologies) seem to fit so many Pre-Raphaelite paintings that they become almost meaningless. It’s difficult to tell why Holman Hunt’s portrait of patron Thomas Fairbairn appears in ‘Salvation’, for example, or why Millais’s beautiful ‘Chill October’ is in ‘Mythologies’ along with Burne-Jones’s Perseus cycle. Despite these anomalies, though, the extent of the exhibition is vast, and the delight of room after room of beautiful colours and lively images is hardly dimmed by this arrangement. It may, however, prove off-putting to those less familiar with the development of Pre-Raphaelitism, and, dull though it may seem, personally I would probably have preferred a chronological, cumulative developmental arrangement.

There are so many highlights, and so many beautiful paintings, rarely-seen gems and old favourites that it is difficult to give more than a very brief overview. Millais’s ‘Mariana’ (right; which I chose as my favourite painting for #PRBDay) is always a delight – the glowing colours, the medievalism combined with the realism – it is Tennyson’s poem come to life, for me, and I love it. Rossetti’s ‘The Blue Bower’ (above left) seems emblematic of High Pre-Raphaelitism: the woman (Fanny Cornforth – the Elephant, and she is surprisingly large!), the colours, the style, the blue and white background – this is Rossetti at his most sensual, florid, and irresistible, almost verging on the hallucinatory. It is marvellous to see pieces I hadn’t seen before, or for a while: I loved Alexander Munro’s Dante-inspired sculptures, and Deverell’s ‘Twelfth Night’; and Ford Madox Brown’s ‘Seeds and Fruits of English Poetry’ (left) is an old favourite, with its medieval, structured outline and depiction of the literary figures important to the Brotherhood. The exhibition certainly demonstrates the extent of the PRB’s engagement with literature: Dante, Shakespeare, Tennyson, Keats, as well as a range of other myths.

I also particularly enjoyed seeing some of Elizabeth Siddal’s paintings, set alongside Rossetti’s medieval series. Though this juxtaposition makes it clear that Siddal’s art is both more naive than Rossetti’s, and also clearly modelled upon his work, nonetheless I think Siddal comes out of it well: her work does bear scrutiny and demonstrably deserves more attention than it usually receives (though I am not sure that I agree with the gallery label that says that her ‘work pushed the boundaries of PRB practice’ – how?) For those legions of Siddal fans, this alone will provide a real delight.

The last two rooms provide particular joys: ‘Paradise’ is full of Morris’s designs – stained glass, wardrobes, the sublime Bird and Peacock carpet, and of course the lovely Kelmscott bed. ‘Mythologies’ contains Burne-Jones’s Perseus cycle, which I always think I shouldn’t like (gratuitous naked women again, monochromatic, gesturing towards Aestheticism despite its narrative strand) but somehow I find the paintings irresistible; I think it’s to do with their form, the way Burne-Jones plays with lines, figures, shapes and shades. The exhibition closes, of course, with the magisterial presence of ‘Astarte Syriaca’, watching over the visitors with a disdainful eye. In the end, the paintings transcend their setting, their juxtaposition, their arrangements, and visitors to the show will love or hate the PRB just as visitors to galleries have always done. Everyone should have an opinion, though, so I thoroughly recommend a visit – it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Preview of “Desperate Romantics”

The BFI screened a preview of the BBC dram446_indexa Desperate Romantics earlier this week, with a discussion afterwards with the cast and writers. Based on the book of the same name by Franny Moyle, the series focuses on the dramatic lives of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The series, following on from the recent BBC4 programmes on the art of the PRB, is clearly designed to appeal to those who know nothing about the PRB as well as those who are already aficionados. It is encouraging, though, that the series aims to show how novel the PRB’s approach was (suggesting that they are “comparable to the punks a hundred years later”).

I wasn’t expecting to be particularly enthused by it, but actually, I rather enjoyed it. It’s loud and rollicking, with a script by Peter Bowker (Occupation, Blackpool) that is sometimes a little too concerned with quick-fire humour, but it certainly entertained me. There is evidently a desire behind the series to show the PRB as real people, not stuffy long-dead painters, and it certainly achieves that end. Sometimes it goes rather over the top, and of course salacious detail is prioritised, but in this first episode at least, the characters of Holman Hunt, Rossetti and Millais are appealing if a little exaggerated.

In the discussion after the screening, the writers, Peter Bowker and Franny Moyle, made it clear that it is the contemporary relevance and resonance of the story behind the PRB which they wanted to get across to the viewer; certainly they have presented it with a strong contemporary appeal, all sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, but personally I feel too much is made of trying to link the past with the present. Nonetheless, Moyle discussed the human elements of ambition and love which feature in the series, along with the group dynamic, which she feels gives it an appealing mythic quality. She wanted to “dust down” the academic perspective of the PRB and bring the intense emotions of the artists back to life. Ben Evans, the producer, added that it was the aspects of human nature – and the sex – which interested the BBC in it! The series has a dangerous appeal, he suggested, which is stronger than the average period drama.

Bowker explained that he wanted to get across the “laddishness” that Moyle had implied in her book, and commented that when writing Millais he had been thinking of David Blunkett – that is, a clean-living character who turns out to be having an unexpected affair! Rafe Spall explained that to a certain extent playing the members of the PRB presented the actors with a blank canvas, since we don’t know what their voices or mannerisms were like, and so the actors have worked hard at their interpretations. In Holman Hunt, Spall aimed to create a mixture of control and precision desperate_romantics_01with sex and violence, which provided an interesting challenge. Clearly Spall has done some considerable research on Hunt, and has grown to love his character. Amy Manson suggested that in portraying Elizabeth Siddal she had attempted to show the desire to achieve more than expected from life, as the milliner became a model. Certainly Manson looked the part, almost uncannily, and was sharp-tongued and blunt, perhaps intending to recreate Siddal as a very modern heroine, rather than the waif-victim she is sometimes portrayed as. Oh, and it was suggested that Barbara Windsor is a modern version of Annie Miller!

The issue of historical accuracy is bound to be one of the biggest questions that any programme like this raises, and Bowker admits that the passage of time permits more liberties with history than biopics of more recent subjects do. A number of direct quotations from Ruskin and others were used in this episode, although I was surprised that Dickens’ comments on Christ in the House of his Parents, which were published in Household Words, were here spoken at an exhibition, as was Ruskin’s reply which appeared in The Times. The biggest liberty taken, which concerns me more, is the invention of a narrator-character, Fred Walters; apparently this was because all the possible narrators – WM Rossetti, Fred Stephens, Walter Deverell – had such stories of their own that Bowker felt it would be best to minimise the part of the narrator by making him up. I’m not sure this was necessary, personally.

The programme also suggests that the PRB first exhibited their paintings together, in an exhibition that they put on themselves. This is patently untrue, though I can see how it works as a device, but of course many viewers won’t realise the liberties that have been taken with the truth. Still, if it leads people to a genuine interest in the PRB, perhaps it will be worth it. Best, I think, to try to suspend personal knowledge and concerns, and just enjoy it as a well-produced and entertaining show. It starts on BBC2 on July 21st at 9pm.