Friday, 14 April 2017

Sussex Modernism or townies on holiday?

Review of the Sussex Modernism show at Two Temple Place, April 2017

Two Temple Place is a remarkable hotchpotch, an overwhelming ragbag of decoration in what produces an incoherent muddle for the viewer. Created at the end of the 19th century for a fabulously wealthy but tasteless American, it suffers from that period’s strange belief that covering every surface with decoration was somehow better than simplicity. You feel it was buildings like this that led to the severe, stark modernism of concrete buildings. This is a building that cost a vast amount to put together. 

The building is worth mentioning, because it seemed to clash with the paintings and sculpture displayed within. The art displayed (perhaps any art exhibited in this space would be the same) appeared to be overwhelmed by the cacophony of impressions being sent by the building and its decor.

What was this show about? The charity behind the exhibition, the Bulldog Trust, sets out to “support the development of regional museums and galleries”. This show reflects that aim, but notice that the aim is to support galleries, not to present anything about the region in which those galleries are situated. To a large extent, this show ignores the landscape of Sussex. Here, then, is the first of the exhibition’s paradoxes:  it claims to be about a place, but celebrates the work of a group of artists who largely ignored that place.  Eric Gill moved away from Ditchling because of comments from the locals, the exhibition tells us.  Mendelssohn and Chermayeff were widely criticised by xenophobic locals complaining that British architects should have been given the commission to build the De La Warr Pavilion.  To comprehend the show, you should rename it ”various early 20th-century artists who were based in Sussex at some point”. Even that description doesn’t account for a photo of Picasso, shown visiting Sussex – we aren’t told for how long.  The closest this show comes to depicting the Sussex landscape is a few humorous photographs by Lee Miller, such as one where US cartoonist Saul Steinberg is photographed in such a way that he appears to be drawing the Long Man of Wilmington. It is a response to the landscape, but hardly one worth celebrating. This is a show about townies having a laugh at the strange primitivism they encounter outside London.

So was the show “modernist”? The subtitle of the show, “retreat as rebellion”, seems a somewhat defensive qualification of the term “modernist”.  The captions do their best to suggest this art as challenging, but in reality, there was a great deal of far more challenging art taking place at the same time outside of Sussex.

To call the show “Sussex modernists” suggests some kind of group, and the artists in this group were widely disparate. There was very little connecting Duncan Grant, the surrealists, John Piper, Eric Gill, and Serge Chermayeff, except that they all spent some time in Sussex. That is hardly a theme.  The show tries to make a case for the participants being unconventional and challenging in their attitudes. For example, Duncan Grant painted a crucifixion for Berwick Church that showed a naked Christ with a visible penis. Yet somehow this radicalism begins to dissolve when you read how Virginia Woolf used to enjoy dressing up in rustic clothes as a model for an Annunciation. It seems very close to Marie Antoinette pretending to be a milkmaid in her pretend farm at Versailles.

All in all, the show strikes me as a pleasant wander through nine regional collections, pulling out interesting things, many of which have not been shown before (there were some interesting photographs of natural objects on beaches). But that’s not “Sussex modernism”; it’s “Some interesting works of art I found in galleries in and around Brighton”.  This is not to detract from the works themselves; it’s just that there is nothing to pull them together. Just as Two Temple Place, the building that houses them, has no connection with the pictures either. It’s a muddle.




Monday, 6 February 2017

Why Paul Nash is popular



If you had to summarise the career of Paul Nash in one sentence, it would be: It all started and ended with landscapes,. His best work always involves landscapes, especially trees, in the Home counties, and although he flirted with surrealism, he almost never abandoned landscape and natural objects, and ended back with landscapes, albeit less naturalistic, stylised, mystical landscapes (like the one above).  
A second sentence might add: Some of his best-known images are of the two world wars. In these pictures he portrays stark, graphic representations of the chaos and destruction wrought by war. He also demonstrated, certainly in the images from World War Two, a fondness for destruction: scenes of bombing, and scenes of junk from crashed planes and military hardware.
So why was the exhibition packed with visitors? At times, there were three or four people grouped around most of the paintings. The answer to this question is linked to the above. Nash is an artist of the English landscape: to be specific, he celebrates the magic of the rare wild scenes in the southern counties.  His images of Wittenham Clumps, for example, convey something other-worldly about that memorable group of trees. What captured Nash's imagination, clearly, is the stylization of the original; it is a hill with some trees on it. Almost nothing else, and that simplicity is memorable. Once you have seen a Nash depiction of Wittenham Clumps, you never look at the originals in quite the same way.
From his earliest works displayed here he uses a characteristic, soft-shade palette and a tendency to reduce detail to line and simpler forms. An early depiction of Wittenham Clumps (1913, when he was only 24) already shows this tendency to simplification. This tendency stays with him throughout his life, so even when he includes St Pancras Station in his paintings, as part of the view from his window, it is a drastically simplified St Pancras, only recognisable from the shade of the brick rather than the rich detail of the actual facade.
Popular: this is popular art, in the sense that people find the images somehow reassuring. This is not challenging art. For some strange reason, everything Nash draws or paints has a tendency to look beautiful. Even in his most stylized surrealist works, there is usually some satisfying line or relationship to enjoy; this is not stark, like the painters he claimed to be following, such as de Chirico, whose work lacks any of Nash’s lyricism. To demonstrate that Nash paints lyrically, look at the war paintings. Even the First World War images, such as We are Making a New World, despite depicting horror, look attractive – so attractive, that, we read, the image was featured on an official publication about the British War Artists (although they didn’t mention the title). Similarly, in the Second World War images, his depictions of military junk (Totes Meer) and even bombing missions over Germany (Battle of Germany, 1944) are entertaining to the eye. You get the feeling that everything he depicts will become attractive.
The same is true for the surrealist works. Although he tries his best to represent disconnected objects out of context and intrusively, he cannot resist starting with a landscape background, or even, as with the lovely Equivalents for the Megaliths, manages to convey a sense of the Avebury stones at the same time as trying to show abstract volumes. One of the best examples of an object becoming beautiful is a concrete trough he discovered in a field during a walk. This concrete trough appealed because of its rhythmic repetitious shape, and in fact he used the shape as part of a collage, removed from its environment that would make it intelligible. But then he uses the shape again, in Objects in a Field, 1936, and magnificently captures both the object in a recognisable environment and at the same time highlights the strangeness, the unnaturalness of the shape – and puts it all into a satisfying whole, so that the viewer gazes on the image with pleasure.
Finally, if I had to select a favourite image, or at least a period of Nash images, I would choose the very last room, which contains his characteristic landscapes, but now becoming mystical in the same way that Samuel Palmer or Ivon Hitchens takes a view and renders it mysterious. Landscape of the Vernal Equinox contains Wittenham Clumps yet again; but this time not only the trees, but all the landscape around, has become reduced to areas of bare colour with simple outlines, all lit from the sun and moon in the rear of the painting. If you ever wanted to feel that the landscapes of Sussex, Dorset, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire could be magical, here is a demonstration. That’s what brings the crowds in.