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.

lady-strachey

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.

ahsham

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!

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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.

new-world

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.

spring-in-the-trenches

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.

Clouds

Clouds fascinate me. Their infinite variety and beauty appeals, and every evening I watch the sunset from my house and marvel at the cloud formations which surround it. Sky spaces, where the scudding clouds are framed as works of art, are a delight. Recently, I lay in bed looking out of the window and wondering what clouds mean – prompted by reading Alexandra Harris’s Weatherland, which discusses the importance of clouds for Shelley and the Romantic poets, in particular. Of course clouds are impervious to us, and our desire to find shapes in them is simply a way of trying to make them conform to human understanding, but somehow I wanted to know more; now, I do. At the Port Eliot festival, I was delighted to hear Gavin Pretor-Pinney, author of The Cloudspotter’s Guide and founder of the Cloud Appreciation Society, talk about the science of clouds, and why they are important.

The CAS has a manifesto:
We believe that clouds are unjustly maligned and that life would be immeasurably poorer without them.

We think that they are Nature’s poetry, and the most egalitarian of her displays, since everyone can have a fantastic view of them.

We pledge to fight ‘blue-sky thinking’ wherever we find it. Life would be dull if we had to look up at cloudless monotony day after day.

We seek to remind people that clouds are expressions of the atmosphere’s moods, and can be read like those of a person’s countenance.

We believe that clouds are for dreamers and their contemplation benefits the soul. Indeed, all who consider the shapes they see in them will save money on psychoanalysis bills.

And so we say to all who’ll listen: Look up, marvel at the ephemeral beauty, and always remember to live life with your head in the clouds!
Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps exhibited 1812 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

JMW Turner, ‘Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps’ (Tate Gallery)

I learned about what the shapes of clouds mean, and why they form in certain ways, which was explained using some entertaining experiments. They are not simply something which gets in the way of the sun, but the face of the atmosphere, which allow us to read its moods. Clouds, we were told, are ‘beautiful, dynamic, evocative aspects of nature’, an egalitarian display available to all, and also practical: we can read the weather through them. (Well, I can’t, not yet, but I hope to learn!) Cloud-watching is the sport of dreamers throughout history, from scientists to poets to artists (just look at Turner’s clouds, for example), and they are – I think – inspiring.

Shelley’s poem ‘The Cloud’ is a masterpiece of cloud art – read it here, and here is the last stanza:
The_Empire_of_Light_MOMA

Rene Magritte, ‘The Empire of Light’, 1950-4, MOMA

I am the daughter of Earth and Water,
And the nursling of the Sky;
I pass through the pores of the ocean and shores;
I change, but I cannot die.
For after the rain when with never a stain
The pavilion of Heaven is bare,
And the winds and sunbeams with their convex gleams
Build up the blue dome of air,
I silently laugh at my own cenotaph,
And out of the caverns of rain,
Like a child from the womb, like a ghost from the tomb,
I arise and unbuild it again.
 There is a lovely article about this poem by poet Sarah Doyle here, on the Wordsworth’s Trust blog.

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‘Compass’d by the Inviolate Sea’

Penlee House Gallery in Penzance never fails to offer fascinating exhibitions, and their current one is no exception. ‘Compass’d by the Inviolate Sea’: Marine Painting in Cornwall from Turner to Wallis takes its title from Tennyson’s poem ‘Dedication to the Queen’, and indicates the breadth and depth of sea-painting over the period, with a focus – though not exclusively – on paintings of the Cornish coast. The quotation indicates the position of Britain as an island, suggestive of the strength and impassivity of the sea, though in fact it comes from one of Tennyson’s Laureate poems written in praise of Queen Victoria, and the line, which closes the poem, refers to the impregnability of her throne because of the peace and stability of her reign (you can read the poem here).

Turner

Turner’s ‘St Michael’s Mount’ (1834) is one of several paintings of that particular view, and one of the best, though looking much steeper and more impregnable than it does now. Turner’s composition shows wrecked ships overshadowed by the Mount and surrounded by the sea; like many of the pictures in the first room, this is not a chocolate-box view, but rather one which demonstrates the sea as a force ‘inviolate’ indeed, uncaring of the lives it takes. The works on display are more than local scenes, then: some are realist while others more representative, and indicate the huge number of ways in which artists engage with the sea, in working harbours, landscapes, even narrative paintings. Thomas Creswick’s ‘The Land’s End’ is strikingly realist, with carefully detailed geological strata of rock appearing in a style reminiscent of Dyce’s Pre-Raphaelite-inspired works, while Henry Moore’s ‘Seascape’ almost gestures towards abstraction in its focussed colour and vigour.

Creswick

There are three striking images hung together: James Millar’s ‘Cornish Solitude’, Samuel ‘Lamorna’ Birch’s ‘Tol-Pedn’, and Richard Carter’s ‘The Rising Moon and the Day’s Departure’, all depict rocks, sea, and seagulls: no human figure is present, and none could get there (one wonders where the artist was sitting) – the sea is untouchable, inviolate indeed. The threat of the sea is palpable in all: these may be beautiful, picturesque scenes but this is the untamed sea, not simply a decorative image. Those images which do include figures often refer to disasters, past or potential, and again imply the dangers of the sea-faring life more than the tamer appeal of the seaside, though there are a few of these, too.

Millar

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The later rooms of the exhibition are a little more tranquil, with more concession to the human figure, and it is interesting to note the shift; as the exhibition guide points out, the approach to sea-painting changed in the twentieth century, away from narrative Victorian approaches of Wallis and Birch, for example, towards an abstraction where form is sometimes dominated by colour. One of Birch’s later paintings, ‘Morning at Lamorna Cove’ (1930s) provides an interesting example of how his work becomes more ‘modern’ in its approach.

Morning at Lamorna Cove

Meanwhile Robert Borlase Smart’s wonderful ‘Moonlit Sea’ of the same period shows how much further other artists had gone: the sea becomes a very different beast in Smart’s hands – an abstract surface of the sea, with colours, angles and patterns appearing on the waves.

Smart moonlit sea

John Mogford’s painting ‘Crossing the Bar – A Break in the Clouds, St Ives’ (1873) reminded me how important the sea was as a metaphor in the nineteenth century. There are several paintings here which reference Victorian writing, but no sea-poem was as powerful in the nineteenth century as Tennyson’s ‘Crossing the Bar’ (not even Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’, sadly). The ‘bar’ in fact refers (in the painting) to the old wooden pier at St Ives, but the link is clearly made with the sea as a stormy place (life) which must be crossed before we reach Heaven. Numerous hymns and songs of the nineteenth century draw on similar imagery, and the paintings owe something to this poetic history.

A spectacular finale to the exhibition is Albert Julius Olsson’s ‘Stormy Evening on the Cornish Coast’, in which the waves seem visibly and audibly to crash on the shore; again, this work is moving towards abstraction, providing the very essence of the sea. The Penwith Peninsula is one of the most treacherous coastlines in Britain, and the dangers it holds have been felt in the communities here for centuries. This exhibition does justice to this coastline in all its wild beauty.

‘This Green Earth’: Bridget Macdonald

img_2759Bridget Macdonald’s work seems strangely, immediately familiar, even if you haven’t seen it before. This, I realised after spending time in Worcester City Art Gallery, is because she is painting in a clearly-defined tradition of landscape painting (and, perhaps, because some of her Worcestershire and Herefordshire scenes are local). ‘This Green Earth‘, the exhibition’s title taken from Wordsworth’s ‘Tintern Abbey‘,explicitly links Macdonald’s work with Claude Lorrain, Samuel Palmer and Peter Paul Rubens, as creators of a tradition consciously inherited by Macdonald. The effect of this is to indicate not only the significance of this tradition of depicting and celebrating landscape, which is perhaps more vital than ever at a time when we need to be focusing on how to preserve our precious green spaces, but also to demonstrate that landscape painting is not a parochial art: its significance is not limited to its locale. All the paintings in this exhibition tell us eternal truths, about humanity’s relationship to the land, about the changing environment, about the emotional and physical need we have for open spaces, and about the universal appeal of natural beauty.

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‘Snowy Woods’ (2012)

The works on display cover five centuries of painting, but there are clear connections, and Macdonald has clearly drawn intentionally on these. Though she lives in Malvern, and describes this as an ‘Arcadian idyll’, she doesn’t ignore modernity: her work incorporates cars and pylons, and a political dimension too, and her work offers ‘a feeling of landscape’ rather than ‘exact representation’. This isn’t about a photographic approach, then: it’s about exploring emotion and thought as well as painterly skill – as all the best art does.

'Ewes' (2012)

‘Ewes’ (2012)

Many of her paintings return to her childhood home on the Isle of Wight, drawing on memory to layer the representation in a different way. Macdonald’s residency at the Barber Institute, University of Birmingham in the 1990s began her interest in exploring landscape art, as she worked directly from landscapes by Claude in particular, transforming them into works with personal meaning for her; some of these are on display here.

The choice of quotation for the exhibition’s title can hardly be coincidence; Macdonald is interested in the interplay between literature and art, notably having produced drawings inspired by Sylvia Plath’s beekeeping poems. ‘Tintern Abbey’ intertwines the self with the landscape, suggesting the communion between the two as a panacea for the ills of the world, and as a way of reconnecting oneself to the world and, ultimately, each other.

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‘September Flood’, 2015

The works are oils and charcoals (some of the largest charcoals I’ve seen), ranging from landscapes in snow (in charcoal) to huge bulls, as well as a wonderful pair of scenes from train windows, complete with raindrops. The beauty and immediacy of all the works here really struck me, and the inclusion of Claude, Palmer and Rubens (chosen by the artist from the Ashmolean and the Manchester Art Gallery) is illuminating. The exhibition is inspiring and refreshing, as landscape painting should be, and it’s free, too – go and see it!

 

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‘Farm’ (2005)

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Samuel Palmer, ‘The White Cloud’ (1831-2)

Women Reading

The Artist's Wife 1933 Henry Lamb 1883-1960 Presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1934 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N04749I have a particular fondness for paintings of women reading. I suppose this is because I spend so much time reading – and I like images that have a woman, alone, comfortable, engrossed in a book, ignoring whatever is going on around her (including the artist painting her). I love this 1933 painting by Henry Lamb (left), The Artist’s Wife, for this reason. I’ve just discovered the Tate’s Album facility, in which you can create your own digital exhibition drawing on their collection, so I decided to do one of pictures of women reading. There are quite a few, it turns out (although, of course, many from other collections, too). You can look at my album here. The range of images is fascinating – because, after all, women reading is a historically complex, socially-inflected topic. For centuries women were only encouraged to read the Bible, and, presumably, recipe books – that is, when they were literate enough to read anything, and many of the images I’ve chosen show a woman simply holding, or even near, a book, which at least indicates her ability to read. After all, why teach women to read when they could just memorise a few chunks of improving verses or household advice manuals? Although Jane Austen wrote in Pride and Prejudice that

“I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of any thing than of a book! — When I have a house of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent liCandlemas Day circa 1901 Marianne Stokes 1855-1927 Presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1977 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T02108brary.”

nonetheless there remained a strong suspicion that women, with their tendency to hysteria, emotional outbursts and rather weak minds, were much better off not reading novels, which might drive them over the edge. The psychological consequences of reading fiction were potentially severe, leading women to expect romance and excitement, alongside an increased tendency to swoon at the sight of a man. In fact, well into the nineteenth century there was a view that reading as part of learning could, if taken to extremes, be very bad for a woman’s mental and physical health; it would take all the blood from her womb (thus rendering her infertile) and move it to her head (thus making her insane). It would – apparently – also give her cold feet. I read a lot, and I do always have cold feet, but things seem otherwise well.

The moral panic about women’s reading – whether they should, and if so what they should – provides the context to these images of women reading. Many of them, unsurprisingly, show a woman reading in a devotional context. These are often the most sombre, beautiful images, showing a religious devotion which is pictured as sacred as well as pictureMary Wollstonecraft (Mrs William Godwin) circa 1790-1 John Opie 1761-1807 Purchased 1884 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N01167sque. One of my favourites of these is Marianne Stokes, Candlemas Day (1901), which shows a very pious-looking girl, totally focused, reading by candlelight. Appropriately, another name for Candlemas is the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin, and this young lady looks very virginal indeed.

Another good reason for a woman to be reading, historically, was to share a (morally improving, no doubt) story with her children. That’s another good reason to educate women; so they can teach their offspring. Some of these are ghastly cloying images, such as Arthur Boyd Houghton’s Mother and Children Reading, but others, such as Harrington Mann’s The Fairytale, are less morally improving and more appealing. These domestic reasons for women reading are historically accurate, I suppose, but there are more interesting paintings, in my view: I was surprised by the number of eighteenth century women pictured with a book in their hand, or tucked under their arm.

Some of the women in the paintings are writers, and are thus depicted with a book to indicate their position as such. Robert Southey may have written to Charlotte Bronte that:

“Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life: & it ought not to be. The more she Lady on a Sofa c.1910 Harold Gilman 1876-1919 Purchased 1948 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N05831is engaged in her proper duties, the less leisure she will have for it, even as an accomplishment & a recreation. To those duties you have not yet been called,  & when you are you will be less eager for celebrity”

but  literature – both writing and reading it – has, luckily, often been the business of a woman’s life, and many of the paintings reflect that. I love the famous Opie picture of Mary Wollstonecraft, looking up from her book severely but with just a tiny twinkle in her eye.

The late nineteenThe Reading Girl 1886-7 Théodore Roussel 1847-1926 Presented by Mrs Walter Herriot and Miss R. Herriot in memory of the artist 1927 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N04361th and early twentieth centuries clearly took it for granted that women might read as a pastime – but, interestingly, they increasingly abandoned their books in aesthetic langour. There are a lot of books put aside in this period, such as Harold Gilman’s Lady on a Sofa (1910) and Matisse’s The Inattentive Reader (1919). The reading woman, then, becomes a much more appealing subject for male painters, as an aesthetic object to be looked at – presumably because while she is reading, she’s not paying attention to who is watching. I’m particularly struck – not in a good way – by Theodore Roussel’s The Reading Girl (1886-7) – after all, we all read like that, don’t we? Who needs clothes to enjoy a book? Perhaps most appealing, then, is Gwen John’s sober depiction of A Lady Reading (1909-11), in which a young woman stands alone, so engrossed in her book she doesn’t even sit on the nearby chair. I understand that absorption, and the painting speaks much more to reading women than the male gaze.

A Lady Reading 1909-11 Gwen John 1876-1939 Presented by the Contemporary Art Society 1917 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N03174