Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Pissarro retreats to Eragny

It is difficult to visit a show of Impressionist paintings without noticing the frantic consumption of all things Impressionist by visitors to the exhibition. Every scrap of the Impressionist story is consumed so enthusiastically by art amateurs that museums know perfectly well that any Impressionist exhibition will be a sure-fire commercial success. The Impressionists, in other words, are bankable. After all, the Impressionists celebrated pretty scenes of an unchanging rural countryside, right? That’s what much of the artgoing public wants. Not an art that engages, but an art that escapes from the modern world. 

Camille Pissarro is one of the premier league Impressionists, the only one, apparently, to exhibit at all eight of the Impressionist Exhibitions, and so a show of his paintings (at the Musee de Luxembourg in Paris) was always likely to be well attended. Question is, did the show present a new perspective about the artist that we did not already know? Did it challenge the standard view? Is Pissarro, in other words, a painter celebrating a fast disappearing rural ideal, or was there more to it than that? Audiences for art more than 50 years old are typically quite uncritical. Did the show challenge the viewer’s assumptions, or, better, did it reveal how the art itself could challenge those assumptions?

Of course, all the battles the Impressionists were fighting have now been won. We all believe that to capture a landscape we should really be painting out of doors. Our paintings should capture our fleeting impressions - and that these are more valuable than anything we dream up in a studio. And so on. But most viewers of Impressionist paintings are not seeking to change the world; instead, they seem perfectly happy to enter into a never-never world. I have to say that on looking at these Pissarro pictures for the first time - local landscapes, scenes of harvesting and work in the fields - they looked pretty comforting and unchallenging. 

Well, this show made a brave attempt to challenge assumptions from the very first room. This was almost entirely given over to photographs, reproduced very large – and without any paintings to detract from the message. These photos told the story behind this show. Pissarro moved to Eragny in 1884, and remained there for the rest of his life. The show doesn't mention that Monet paid for Pissarro's house there. Eragny was (and, it seems, still is) a tiny village then in remote Normandy, today almost a suburb of Paris. The decision to make your home in such a location does not suggest a great engagement with the social forces of the day, and the paintings, when viewed, would seem to suggest – at least on a first reading – an uncritical celebration of the kind of rural idyll that many viewers of Impressionist paintings would like to see; is that what Pissarro was setting out to depict?

Well, the photographs suggested something rather different. They told the story of a painter whose background was not quite what the audience might expect. He was born in the Danish West Indies, and only arrived in France at the age of 12. According to Wikipedia, he, like his siblings, “was forced to attend the local all-black primary school” because his father had been ostracised by the local Jewish community for marrying his deceased uncle’s widow. After studying in France, he spent two years in Venezuela. But none of this early life is mentioned in the exhibition. Instead, the exhibition concentrates on what Wikipedia describes in a wonderful phrase as “expressing on canvas the beauties of nature without adulteration” – as if such a thing were possible. The Wikipedia entry continues “He found the French countryside ...still mostly agricultural and sometimes called the “golden age of the peasantry”. Not, I suspect, a moniker the peasants themselves would have adopted.

You could perhaps question why an artist born outside metropolitan France would choose to spend the last 19 years of his life retreating in this way. But the exhibition does not choose to ask this question. Instead, the show focuses on Pissarro’s celebration of a rural life summed up in the painting Apple Picking, Eragny, 1887-88, a picture used on the cover of more than one of the several guides available at the exhibition bookshop. This picture depicts an apple harvest in an idyllic countryside, with peasants absorbed int their worklearly appearing to be happy in their work.

Yet there is more to the story than that. Interestingly, Pissarro took a great interest in anarchism, and there is one room dedicated to his drawings for a book entitled Turpitudes sociale  / Social Depravities, a set of remarkable drawings that almost look like caricatures of the filthy rich and the suffering poor – a completely different view to the big oil paintings in the other rooms. Here there is a perhaps simplistic but nonetheless very present social conscience. 

Pissarro, it seems, was a keen reader of Proudhon and found “his ideas are totally in sync with ours”. Well, it’s difficult to reconcile these ideas with the paintings in the other rooms of the exhibition. In fact, if anything, his painting moved more towards satisfying the requirements of wealthy bourgeois clients. The exhibition reveals that Pissarro's attempts to create pointillist works were very slow to execute, and, worse, failed to sell. It appears that he moved back to a more reliable type of art that sold readily. In 1894 he founded, with his son Lucien, the Eragny Press, which produced very short runs of expensive art books, destined then (and still now) to be acquired and held by private collectors. Not much sign of democracy in this art. Yet, as his letters reveal, Pissarro was certainly aware of events of the day – in 1894, during a period of anarchist bombings and consequent police clampdowns, he wrote “I am worried that as an outsider ... I might be investigated or expelled from France”, and considered selling the house in Eragny. Yet there are no signs in the paintings, apart from the Social Turpitudes set, of Pissarro feeling in any way an outsider. This exhibition could have been sponsored by the Council for the Preservation of Rural France (if such a body existed).

Perhaps the painting most admired by the visitors, judging from the number of people admiring and photographing it, is one by Pissarro depicting a woman washing her feet in a stream (Le Bain des Pieds, 1895). It is a large, unabashed piece of sentimentalism, a depiction of a female purity and innocence that did not exist then or now. It is a very poor painting – clearly not based around the Impressionist mantra of recording what the artist could see, more a picture of what the 19th-century artist would imagine in his studio about an unreal countryside populated by attractive women washing their feet in streams. The exhibition caption reads: “Inspired by ...Millet, Pissarro here reappropriates this classic subject, by his pictorial technique and the modern allure of the character represented in the natural environment”.  What “modern allure”? If this picture were exhibited without a label in any provincial gallery of European paintings from around 1900, it would not be noticed.

I'm afraid to say that this exhibition takes viewers on an escape, to a land where women wash their feet in streams, and the audience seemed to love it. What happened to the Impressionist ideals?

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

The Invisible Woman and the visible fiction

Claire Tomalin is one of the most prolific (and popular) biographers writing today, having written lives of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Samuel Pepys, and several others. Now, the story of Nelly Ternan, Dickens’ mistress, but never publicly acknowledged by him during his life, is a major discovery, and well worth writing about. So compelling was the story that the book was rapidly turned into a film.

However, there are difficulties in writing the life of Nelly Ternan. She left hardly any letters or account of herself, and Dickens made sure to keep details of her hidden. For a major part of her life, 1862-65, there appears to be no written record of her whatsoever. Hence this biography has to be based on tantalizingly little evidence of her life: the moments when she is recorded are often by mistake for example when she was in the Staplehurst train crash of 1865, when Dickens was travelling with her on the train that went off the rails. Even then, he managed to keep her anonymity, even though he was interviewed after the event.

What does a biographer do in the absence of firm evidence? I’m afraid to say Ms Tomalin starts writing fiction. In fact, with reference to that period 1862-65, Ms Tomalin is not afraid to state confidently what Nelly Ternan might have been doing: “This is to be a chapter of guesses and conjectures, and those who don’t like them are warned.”  So that’s all right, then. The truth is that Ms Tomalin has made things up. Of course, any biographer has a temptation to describe what might have happened; it’s common. Perhaps a more serious fault for a biographer is to make your story into something more melodramatic than it is. Ms Tomalin doesn’t hesitate, first to guess, then to conclude that the result is melodramatic. That three-year absence was while Nelly Ternan was having Dickens’ child (although there is no evidence for it). 

A sensational story

Sadly, if there is an opportunity in this biography to imply a sensational act or fact, Ms Tomalin grabs it. Worse, once a sensational inference has been made, more fiction is added: drawing further conclusions becomes very straightforward. For example, being an actress in Victorian England was, she claims, very close to prostitution. Perhaps that was true; but she then goes on to state that “the stage was virtually the only profession in which this sort of independence was possible for women at this time.” That seems rather sweeping; a woman could run a school (and the Ternans did, for a while). A woman could be a governess. But Ms Tomalin returns again and again to the situation of the actress, emphasising the social ostracism and dubious status: “Their position was seen to be especially anomalous. They were certainly not ladies, since ladies, by definition, did not work.”  There is almost an admiration of the sheer naughtiness of it all, an element that recurs throughout the book.


If you can write a good story, why diminish its impact by including unwarranted assumptions? It’s not much of a problem to read “Mrs Jordan, whose charm and beauty no other actress could equal” (although how is such as statement justified?). But what about over 70 uses of the phrase “must have”? When Nelly’s father died, the cause of his death, states Ms Tomalin with confidence, “we now know must have been syphilis” - yes, this is the accepted interpretation of the 19th-century diagnosis “general paralysis of the insane”. But, continues Ms Tomalin, “no doubt Ternan contracted the disease in his bachelor days and was unaware of the fact”. No doubt. 

Readings of Dickens

Tomalin’s view of Dickens is a mixture of insight and repetition of stereotypes, like her judgements of Ternan herself. For instance she describes Bleak House as “essentially a tragic story peopled by a cast of comic characters”, a judgement that forms a good description of Dombey and Son and other novels by him. Nonetheless, caricature can produce great art: A Christmas Carol is an example. But many of her claims about Dickens’ female characters are unwarranted and simply repeating stereotypes. Describing Dickens’ heroines, he writes, “she [Estella in Great Expectations] is made frigid by her upbringing as part of the plot. All the others are inoculated against sexuality by their creator before their stories begin; they are about as tempting as wax fruit.” All the others? What about Edith, pushed by her mother into a loveless marriage with Dombey, but not afraid to tell him what she thinks of him? She has no compunction in speaking her mind.

In all, a fascinating story, but fatally weakened by an over-imaginative biographer, with passages of pure conjecture, such as: "There is no reason to think she was not responsive to his charm, which dazzled so many young women, or grateful for his devotion. Indeed, it’s perfectly possible she was in love with him.” This biography, in other words, is not so much a presentation of the facts, more an excited and romantic reconstruction of a possible life by a very imaginative biographer.

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Hillbilly Elegy - gripping, yet facile

Bowling Alone was a famous study of changes in American (and hence Western) society – why would anyone bowl by themselves? I approached Hillbilly Elegy with high hopes, since it had been bracketed with Bowling Alone as a key text to understand the American white underclass. Said the Wall Street Journal: “A beautiful memoir but equally a work of cultural criticism about white working-class America”.  That’s quite an achievement! Did it live up to expectations?

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.